As we close in on two years since Gov. Pat McCrory left office, the narrative around his tenure continues to be about House Bill 21.
Twenty years from now, however, I’m not sure if anybody will remember it2. He’ll certainly be noted as the first N.C. governor to lose a re-election bid — but I think history will likely end up being kinder to him than people are today3.
McCrory’s most enduring legacy could be about transportation and construction.
Every car owner in the state has already reaped the benefits of McCrory’s modernization efforts at the DMV. In the coming decade, the I-85 corridor should finally get long-delayed highway improvements under a new road funding formula McCrory shepherded.
It’s a little wonky, but it’s starting to have massive effects. And it’s pushing the balance of power away from rural North Carolina, toward its more urban areas.
Then there’s McCrory’s Connect NC bonds, $2 billion for construction at state universities, parks and public infrastructure. This passed handily in 2016, and is in the very early stages of being spent.
How road funding used to work.
Starting in 1989, North Carolina divvied out highway money based on what was known as the “equity formula.” This was a much different era for the state. The law that set all this up had four stated goals:
- Completing the interstate highway system
- Building loops around Asheville, Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, Raleigh, Wilmington and
- Paving state-owned dirt roads
- Sending more money to cities for their roads
The basic formula for the equity system weighted priority on projects like this: 50% population, 25% miles to complete of the interstate, 25% equal share.
If you’re curious about the “miles to complete” thing — the state was only 77 percent of the way there by 2011.
So yes, there was population as a factor here. But it was based on the region’s population as a percent of the state. And these “regions” as set up by the NCDOT split up the state’s major metro areas. Look at how Iredell County is separated from Mecklenburg. And the Triangle is divided up into four regions.
This system had some notable achievements. The I-485 loop around Charlotte was finally completed in 2015.
But it also had a ton of flaws. The big one is obvious: The equity formula doesn’t allow money to flow to projects that would provide the greatest benefit, or would reduce the most congestion, or that are in general the most needed.
Instead, North Carolina got a lot of highways to nowhere and gigantic highways in Kannapolis while I-40 and I-77 were mired in traffic jams.
This system also emphasized politics to a large degree. Powerful rural legislators got a lot of transportation money for their districts.
Enter the “Strategic Mobility Formula.”
Sponsored by N.C. Rep. Bill Brawley, a Mecklenburg County Republican, the law that created this system was intended to modernize how North Carolina funds highway projects and allow the state to respond to critical needs. The new system, called the Strategic Mobility Formula, was a key priority of Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration.
The urban/rural divide was still a real thing. But the balance of power was clearly shifting.
“We’re not taking money away from rural areas…what we are doing is connecting rural areas to urban areas in a way that benefits everybody,” Brawley said in a TV interview.
Here’s how it works.
This formula is a data-driven process that ranks projects based on the following factors:
- Congestion (30 percent)
- Benefit/cost (25 percent)
- Economic competitiveness (10 percent)
- Safety (15 percent)
- Multimodal and military (5 percent)
- Freight and military (15 percent)
Each potential project gets a numerical score, which is then ranked. That’s supposed to take politics out of the equation.
Funding goes into three buckets: Statewide, regional and district. 40 percent of money (about $6 billion over 10 years) is divvied up across the state based on projects with the biggest need. Metro areas tend to dominate this list.
Then 30 percent each go to the regional and district levels, so every part of the state still gets some money. The regional money is allocated by population and goes to projects with the biggest needs as shown by data. Then the district level money incorporates more local input.
The impact is just starting to be felt. The new way of doing things first went into effect in 2015, and it takes years for these projects to come to fruition.
Every two years, the NCDOT puts together a 10-year “State Transportation Improvement Program.” The first ran from 2016-2025. We’re currently in the 2018-2027 version.
The state DOT is now planning for the third version, to run from 2020-2029.
The new way of doing things puts more emphasis on projects that benefit the state as a whole, and puts more toward non-car projects (like ferries and airports).
Of course, there are still flaws.
There is an odd emphasis on toll lane projects as part of the system. One of the big ones is in the handling of I-77 near Charlotte. A toll lane project was pushed through just before the new system went into effect, and NCDOT is still claiming there’s not enough money to widen it with state dollars even though it scores near the top of the list.
What about the bonds?
I don’t blame you if the Connect NC bonds have fallen off your radar. Current Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration has even taken down the website explaining them.
About $1 billion goes to the state’s universities and community colleges, and every campus will be affected. About half the money is in new construction, and half in repairs/renovations.
The other $1 billion goes to state parks, National Guard facilities, and local water and sewer projects.
Only $200 million of the bonds have been issued, though the state treasurer’s office is anticipating the remaining $1.8 billion.
Check back in 20 years.
By then, we’ll have a better view of the impact this new highway system and the Connect NC bonds had.
Cameron Morrison, a Charlottean, became known as the “Good Roads Governor” based on his insistence on building out the state’s highway system in the early 1920s. He’s also known for pushing a $50 million bond for infrastructure improvements.
If this new formula works as advertised, removing politics from the equation and putting money where it will have the most impact, McCrory could lay a claim to the title as well.