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Lawmaker Questions Need for Mid-County Bridge

By Cindy Beamon

The Daily Advance

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

3 Comments | Leave a Comment

New questions by lawmakers about the proposed Mid-County Bridge in Currituck signal another tough fight ahead over the $600 million project, local and state officials say.

Four powerful Republicans in the General Assembly plan to review the state’s plan for funding the bridge this fall.

In response, Currituck commissioners are set to meet with the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee on Sept. 5 to defend what they call a “serious threat” to the seven-mile span crossing the Currituck Sound.

State Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, one of the committee’s four chairmen, said “gap funds” for the mid-county bridge — funds to pay for the difference between what the project will cost and the amount private tolls will raise — unfairly favor Currituck over other counties in the state. If Rabon had his way, funds would be more evenly distributed among all 16 of the state’s transportation districts.

“What makes Currituck so special?” Rabon asked in a telephone interview last week.

The newest threat to the project is really nothing new, said state Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank. In 2011, Owens used the bridge as a bargaining chip when he agreed to vote with the Republican majority for a veto-proof state budget.

“It’s been serious for a couple years now,” Owens said of 
possible funding cuts to the bridge.

The bridge will lose Owens as its chief defender in the General Assembly when he retires later this year. Another powerful bridge supporter, former Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight left office in January 2011.

“We have fought a lot of opposition over the years, and so far, we are still on the table,” Owens said. “But there will be future fights after I am gone.”

That fight could hang on a promise.

Owens said House Speaker Thom Tillis made a promise that he would back the bridge for as long as he remains speaker. So far, Tillis has kept his word, said Owens.

When the Senate sought to cut the gap funding for the project by almost half this year, Tillis helped restore full funding in the General Assembly’s final budget, said Owens. Cutting the gap funds would have “killed the project,” he said.

Tillis could not be reached to comment. Last week, an aide said he was on vacation until Monday.

Owens acknowledged the fragility of Tillis’s promise. Tillis may not be re-elected as House Speaker or he may yield to pressure from fellow Republicans not to continue gap funding for the project, officials have speculated.

In the Senate, opposition to the Mid-County Bridge and similar toll-road projects appears to be building.

Rabon said he doesn’t know if he has support in the General Assembly to end funding for the bridge as lawmakers now know it.

In 2002, the state set up the North Carolina Turnpike Authority to plan and construct toll-road projects that would be too expensive to be funded through the traditional state transportation system.

Rabon is now suggesting the state scuttle Turnpike projects and divvy funds among the transportation districts.

He said the Turnpike projects give an unfair advantage to some counties.

“No one in the state should be special. Everyone should be treated fairly,” said Rabon.

He didn’t mention names, but Rabon said under previous leadership in the General Assembly, northeastern North Carolina has already received “more than its fair share” of state funding for various projects.

“That’s the way it used to be done, but that’s not the way it’s going to be done from now on,” said Rabon.

State Sen. Stan White, who was appointed by the Democratic Party to fill the unexpired term of Basnight, charges that questions about the bridge’s funding are a veiled attempt to shift funding to other road projects in the state.

Currituck Commissioner Owen Etheridge has also questioned the motives of legislators raising questions about the gap funding.

“I just want them to not play politics with the Mid-County Bridge, and that’s what I think is going on,” Etheridge said in an interview earlier this month.

Rabon denied that his district would receive any immediate benefit from shifting funds away from Turnpike projects. He noted that the proposed Cape Fear Skyway, a Turnpike project near Wilmington, would be one of the victims if funding is shifted elsewhere.

Rabon said he doesn’t oppose the Mid-County Bridge, just how it will be funded.

The state’s plan to provide $28 million in gap funds each year for 30 years will turn the bridge into a “billion dollar project,” he said. That’s more than the state can afford, he said.

Rabon also questioned what will happen if the state’s private partner in the project goes bankrupt.

“If they go belly up, who’s going to pay?” he asked.

Local officials say the oversight committee chairmen are overlooking the benefits of the Mid-County Bridge project.

Owens said he’s invited Rabon to Currituck to see the need for the bridge first-hand, but so far Rabon hasn’t accepted.

“I don’t think people realize the magnitude of the problem,” said Owens, noting that evacuation of the barrier island during a major hurricane would be a major problem.

Both Owens and White said the oversight committee’s move to re-examine financing for the bridge could be serious.

“(The) Turnpike (Authority) is nervous,” said White. “The tone of the (committee’s) letter is ‘kill the bridge.”’

Rabon said asking questions is just part of his job as a member of the oversight committee. He said Currituck needs to prove the importance of the project to the entire state.

“If the same project was approved in Avery County, would Currituck support it?” asked Rabon.

Owens said Currituck has already answered questions about the bridge’s importance.

“This is nothing new, and it certainly hasn’t been rushed,” said Owens.

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