Capital Goods - June 2008

Stoplight up ahead
By Scott Mooneyham

Each day, tractor-trailers unload goods at warehouses or stores in and around Charlotte. For many, the stop marks a brief foray into North Carolina. They’ve come from Charleston, S.C., or Savannah, Ga., or distributioncenters set up along interstate highways to serve those ports.

OK, no big deal. Charlotte and Mecklenburg County abut South Carolina. Is it any surprise that many of the goods that end up on shelves in North Carolina’s most populous city come streaming in along I-77 from south of the state line?

But here’s some food for thought: By road, it’s 201 miles from Charleston to Charlotte; from Wilmington and its port, the distance is 202 miles. Of course, the trips don’t compare. From Charleston, a truck or car can travel all the way by superhighway. Dreams of a direct interstate link from Wilmington to Charlotte may be inching closer to reality, but a full-fledged I-74 along the route — or something close to it — will take many more years and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Sixty years after the advent of the federal interstate highway system, North Carolina still has no direct, free-flowing, four-lane link between its largest port and its largest city. As a result, commerce to Charlotte flows mainly north and south, not east and west. Danny McComas says that lack of an interstate-class highway is symptomatic of larger transportation policy failures in the state that have hurt both commerce and commuting.

McComas is a Republican state legislator from Wilmington, but his knowledge of transportation isn’t limited to what he picked up hanging around House committee hearings. He’s president of MCO Transport, a 200-truck company that specializes in hauling cargo from Southeastern ports. “We haven’t strived to upgrade our interstate system the way other states have,” he says. Other elected officials and business leaders might quibble with that statement: Striving and doing aren’t synonymous. Since the 1960s, state leaders have sought federal funds for interstates that included the Wilmington-Charlotte link. Those efforts led to the completion of I-40 across the length of state, from the Tennessee state line to Wilmington, in June 1990.

Still, for a place once known as the “Good Roads State,” traffic has become intolerable along some metropolitan routes. Interstates need repair. State ports at Wilmington and Morehead City — the latter with no interstate access and each served by a single railroad — are at competitive disadvantages to rivals north and south. Few who have delved into transportation issues doubt that the state is going to have to spend significantly more in the near future — on highways, rail and ports — to keep pace economically and to meet the transportation demands of a growing population.

But there’s a conundrum facing the state. North Carolina derives the bulk of the money that goes toward transportation needs from taxes on gasoline and other motor fuels. Fuel-efficient cars and those that rely on electricity or alternative fuels may be good for the environment and reduce demand on foreign oil, but they’ll make a tax system that ties road building and maintenance to gasoline consumption unworkable. Rising oil prices also mean higher costs because petroleum is a key component of asphalt. It may be in vogue for politicians to talk about reducing, capping or temporarily eliminating gas taxes, but users are going to pay for roads and other transportation investments one way or another. The legislature has embarked on a study examining long-range transportation needs and how to pay for them. There’s talk about toll roads, local ballot initiatives to impose additional sales taxes to pay for public transportation and the creation of a multimillion-dollar fund to push more railroad investment.

The proposals this year will be preliminary stuff. It’s an election year, and that usually translates into little heavy lifting in Raleigh. Sam Hunt, a former transportation secretary and member of the study committee, predicts bold actions before the group is done sometime next year. “If you come up with a plan that is good enough, that’s meaningful, that solves problems, then people will support it,” he says.

But McComas, who’s not on the committee, wonders whether the effort will provide the comprehensive examination needed to get North Carolina back to being the Good Roads State again. Carving out pieces of the transportation puzzle — whether it be roads, rail, ports or financing — without examining how they all work together is how we got here in the first place.

Scott Mooneyham is the editor of The Insider, www.ncinsider.com.

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