Governor hopefuls differ on bridge

By Cindy Beamon

The Daily Advance

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Although recent questions about the proposed Mid-Currituck Bridge have arisen in the state Senate, one local lawmaker says the future of the project may likely hinge on the new governor.

Gov. Bev Perdue has supported the project, but her influence will end after November’s election, when a new governor is elected.

State Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, says who replaces her could have a big bearing on the bridge. The governor appoints the state Board of Transportation, the body in charge of negotiating the state’s contract with a private partner in building and maintaining the $600 million span, Owens notes.

“If (the BOT members) want to kill it, they certainly can in their negotiations,” he said.

In recent statements, the two candidates for governor have differed on their stances on the bridge.

Republican Pat McCrory, former mayor of Charlotte, was non-committal in his support of the bridge, although a campaign spokesman said that does not mean he opposes the project.

McCrory wants to examine all road projects statewide before deciding which ones should move forward, said Ricky Diaz, press secretary for McCrory.

“If elected, Pat McCrory will develop a long-term

transportation infrastructure plan to once and for all to remove politics from transportation infrastructure funding,” said Diaz. “Pat believes projects should be funded based on worthiness, and will review plans for the Mid-Currituck Bridge to ensure that the long-term economic interests of the state and region are best-served.”

Democrat Walter Dalton, the state’s current lieutenant governor, supports the bridge, said campaign spokesman Schorr Johnson.

“He believes it will help with tourism which is one of North Carolina’s top industries,” Johnson said.

He noted that Dalton also supported project when he served in the state Senate.

Dalton also approves plans to fund the project with a combination of public and private funds.

“The unique public-private partnership is the only way a project of this size will be able to go forward,” Johnson said.

Johnson did add one qualifier. He said funding for the project will have to be re-examined every two years when the state budget is being considered.

The state’s changing political landscape over the past two years has turned out to be a mine field for the proposed Mid-Currituck Bridge project.

Under the leadership of then Democratic Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight, the General Assembly agreed to pay $28 million each year in “gap funds” for the next 30 years to support the project. Gap funds will pay the difference between what the bridge will collect in tolls and the actual cost of construction.

However, after Basnight left office and Republicans took control of the Senate, the project has been under fire on several fronts.

Most recently chairmen of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee have questioned the state’s plan for funding the bridge. State Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Beaufort, said recently in an interview that the state needs to re-examine the importance of all N.C. Turnpike Authority projects before the General Assembly funds them. The Turnpike Authority is the state agency the General Assembly, then under Democratic control, created to oversee and build several expensive toll road projects, including the Mid-Currituck Bridge.

Owens, who also will be leaving office when his current term ends in December, said the project has already passed close scrutiny over the past two decades. He claims the recent questions are aimed at either diverting funds to other road projects or eliminating toll projects altogether.

Despite the recent attacks, Owens said he believes funding for the Mid-Currituck Bridge will eventually come through. The General Assembly will find it difficult to undo the legislation that already promises state funds for the project, he said.

“It takes both the House and the Senate to take it out,” Owens said.