McCrory: Transit Funding 'Tough,' But Lake Norman Towns Have Edge
The climate for transit funding will be "tough" over the next few years amid federal and state budget troubles, former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory told members of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission Wednesday. But the good news for area transit advocates, he said, is that few areas of the country are cooperating the way local leaders here are. Mr. McCrory spoke to about 40 people during the commission's monthly meeting at Davidson Town Hall. It was a meeting about transit, but many were there to hear the man who is expected to be the Republican challenger to Gov. Beverly Perdue in 2012 - a rematch of their 2008 race. At last check, polls had were giving the former mayor the edge this time around. At Wednesday's meeting, the LNTC celebrated one previously announced milestone - the NC Department of Transportation's decision to reallocate funding from other projects to help pay for a $65 million widening of I-77. The state funding and fees from high-occupancy toll lanes (HOT lanes) would add a lane to I-77 from north of I-485 in Charlotte to the Exit 28 area to help relieve traffic on the heavily-traveled artery between Charlotte and Lake Norman. Commission member Mitch Abraham said the construction could begin in 2014 and finish in 2015. The commission also got an update on Charlotte Area Transit System's plans for the Red Line North Commuter rail project. Local officials don't expect any federal funding for the line, at least under current federal rules. (It's expected to cost several hundred million dollars.) There will some state and Charlotte funding, but figuring out how to pay about half the cost likely will be up to the towns of Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville - members of the task force. Greg Ferguson, Huntersville's town manager who chairs the financing subcommittee of the regional Red Line Task Force, told the commission that planners have been looking at eight different potential tools for funding the line. Four will be presented to the task force for consideration. He said the group hopes to have a revised cost for the line in the next four months and plans to present its proposed funding "as a unified plan," not as a series of individual rail stops. McCRORY'S TAKE ON TRANSIT Although he's expected to run for governor, Mr. McCrory insisted his appearance Wednesday was that of a transit advocate - an outsider looking in at local transit planning in the Lake Norman area - not a political speech. He said he's been traveling around the country for the past 18 months looking at infrastructure projects. "The current state of transportation and transit I think is going to be extremely tough for the next several years, and I think it's going to get even tougher," he said. He said the country lacks an "infrastructure vision" like the one President Dwight Eisenhower developed in building the interstate highway system in the 1950s. Instead, we've got a "reactionary" system in which we look at infrastructure project-by-project, instead of as an integrated plan, Mr. McCrory said. The blame is not specific to one party or another, it lies with Republicans and Democrats, he said. Mr. McCrory also said the nation is feeling a negative impact from the nearly $1 trillion stimulus package that the government offered to help boost the economy in the past few years. The problem is that less than 20 percent of the money has been spent, he said. "The concept of shovel-ready is a disaster," he said. "Most projects weren't shovel ready, and those that were were already budgeted," he said. Those that did get built were quick hit projects such as road repaving, not long-range projects that required architecture and planning. Meanwhile, the current budget crisis and the recent budget compromise mean that there will be few if any "discretionary" dollars from the federal government in the coming years. "I think this is where you guys really need to step up, to say what's going to happen to the New Start money," he said, referring to the funding program that pays for infrastructure projects. He urged commission members to lobby North Carolina's senators on the issue. Mr. McCrory said even if there is money available, the Lake Norman area will face competition from other metro areas around the country. He said the transportation commission and local officials will need to make sure their message - both to federal officials and to the public - is "clear and concise," he said. "Everything has to revolve around a vision." UNITY COUNTS The good news, he said, is that Lake Norman area officials are already cooperating. Looking around a room filled with town managers, elected officials and other members of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission, he said: "You being at this table, I can still see you're way ahead of your competition. I'm telling you, I've visited probably 15 cities around the nation. And looking at the landscape, you're ahead of them. Part of that is because of the political courage, the community courage and the sense of teamwork - recognizing that political boundaries don't mean anything " Carroll Gray, the commission's executive director, took minute near the end of the meeting to press Mr. McCrory. Noting that Mr. McCrory has a shot at winning the 2012 election (he's ahead of Gov. Perdue in recent polls), Mr. Gray said: "Should you be successful, we would certainly hope transportation would be part of your agenda." Mr. McCrory chuckled, and said, "I'm not answering that question." But he added, "Infrastructure and transportation is always going to be my passion. If we don't plan for the future, we haven't built quality for the future."