A Little Out of the Loop

by Daniel Schere

It was a packed house at Smith-Reynolds Airport where Gov. Pat McCrory announced a 25-year vision for the future of transportation in North Carolina on Sept. 17.

The Governor’s plan focuses on connecting urban regions like the Triad with rural outlying areas. He discussed a bond of about $1 billion that will fund about 21 projects including the completion of the Eastern half of the Winston-Salem Beltway.

“I know this is a major project for you in this area and we’ve listened to you loud and clear,” McCrory said. “Now is the time to do that because interest rates are low. Those projects as you well know in Winston-Salem are off on the side getting cobwebs.”

Naturally, the announcement elicited excitement from many of the local politicians in the room. These are people who had been waiting for things like the beltway for a long time and this past Wednesday they were assured of funding for half of it. But the Governor also left out several key pieces of information. He did not say what the pecking order would be for the 21 projects or exactly how big of a chunk of funding the beltway project would receive.

Several road projects in Forsyth County have already been put at the bottom of the priority list as a result of House Bill 817, which altered the procedure for funding projects by setting criteria that are based on cost, congestion and safety.

The Governor mentioned several times that he was trying to “take the politics out” of the funding process. I’ll give him the benefit of that doubt on that one. The mobility formula is strictly data-based, but regardless Forsyth County often gets the short end of the stick and without announcing a specific pecking order for the projects, many of the folks who live in outlying areas will remain left in the dark.

Don’t get me wrong. I hope the Governor’s vision comes to fruition. North Carolina can increase its economic activity to an immense degree by investing in transportation across the state. But let’s be honest “” 25 years is roughly a quarter of a lifetime. Millennials often don’t stick around for even half that long and will never benefit from the public goods they are pouring their tax dollars into. Chamber of Commerce President Gayle Anderson said she too wanted more immediate results.

“This is a 25-year vision, and that’s wonderful to have for the state, but we’re expecting our road to be finished much sooner than in 25 years,” she said.

Those invited to the conference did not include small business owners, ordinary citizens who use public transportation every day to get around or the owners of properties along the future beltway corridor who will one day have their land taken over by the state under eminent domain. To the governor’s credit, he addressed a question about the latter issue by saying how he sympathizes with anyone whose well-being is put in limbo due to the uncertainty of the project.

But we need more. We need assurance the beltway will happen on time, which means we need to know when on-time actually is. We need to have a better sense that our state officials understand the shape that roads such as Business 40 are in, and why there is such a need for a road like the beltway. We need many more specific details about how much time and money will be involved in helping to make the lives of commuters a little easier.

Now I’m not suggesting the Governor travel to Winston-Salem every week to let us know what the chances of the beltway being completed this year are. But if he is going to make the effort to come out here for a 20-minute speech, he should think more broadly about his audience. This past Wednesday, the audience included much more than just the people in the room. It included all of those people I just mentioned, plus people from outside the state who might want to invest. His remarks seemed mostly rhetorical. A lot of times that works, but when there is a matter of public concern it’s best to dish out the cold hard facts, even if it isn’t what people want to hear.

The Governor spoke for a fair amount of time Wednesday, but I left the press conference unsure of what to take away. And that kind of communication is what leaves communities, especially those who are affected most, out of the loop. !