New Study Suggests Transportation Priorities for North Carolina

The Hartgen Group and the Reason Foundation have released Transportation Priorities for North Carolina, a report recommending several significant changes to North Carolina’s transportation management process such as setting clear performance measures and using maintenance contracting. The election of both Governor Pat McCrory and new legislators to the North Carolina General Assembly provides a rare opportunity for North Carolina to examine its transportation system. The full report is available here and the executive summary is available here. The analysis considered all transportation modes: highways, aviation, freight and passenger rail, ferry, transit and non-motorized transportation.

The report reviews prior studies, plans, visions, legislation and other state practices to identify suggestions for transportation improvements. The report also solicited suggestions from stakeholder groups and others familiar with North Carolina’s transportation system. One-hundred fifty seven separate suggestions are analyzed by goal, time frame, mode, cost or savings potential, feasibility and regional equity.

The suggestions can be grouped into 3 categories. The first includes major changes to the transportation program that can be implemented by increasing maintenance and limiting expansions to highways of statewide signficance. One major recommendation included in this section is to constrain the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) to merit-based project selection and to shift some of the savings to maintenance, major projects and rural safety. Fully implemented, these recommendations could save $50 million annually.

The second category includes several recommendations to strengthen maintenance management and project selection such as using head to head project evaluation, adding maintenance needs for funding formulas and contracting out maintenance. Fully implemented, these recommendations could cost $30 million but provide substantially improved system maintenance.

The third category includes 10 smaller recommendations that are intended to strengthen Long-Range Planning and improve communications. These measures should also increase organizational efficiency by making increased use of design-build flexibility and strengthen measures of project and performance delivery.

I want to highlight five report recommendations. More details on each can be found in the New Approaches section starting on page 41.

1) Public-Private Partnerships (PPP): While North Carolina has enabling PPP legislation, the state has made little use of PPPs. PPPs are not appropriate for all projects; typically PPPs are best for large or very large projects including new toll roads, new toll bridges, adding express toll lanes to congested freeways, major reconstruction of existing highways and major bridge replacements. PPPs have several major advantages including lower-risk funding, more total funding, greater risk transfer, guaranteed maintenance, minimized life-cycle costs, innovations. Additionally, these private partners pay taxes.

2) Tolling: North Carolina depends heavily on per-gallon fuel taxes as its highway funding source. But as the fuel-tax is not a dependable revenue source, the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Finance Commission recommended that fuel taxes be replaced as the primary funding source. North Carolina does not have the funding to substantially expand or rebuild any of its major freeways. Tolling freeways that need to be substantially rebuilt or expanded is one solution. However, any new tolling needs to be implemented carefully. North Carolina should NOT put a per-mile charge on existing highways but it should consider tolling new highways, new express or HOT lanes, and reconstructing and modernizing existing highways.

3) Priced and Managed Lanes: Traffic congestion is a major problem especially in Charlotte and the Research Triangle areas. Adding Managed Lanes can substantially reduce congestion. Such lanes have the added benefit of improving transit service. There are several different types of Managed Lanes; all allow vanpools and buses to use the lane for free but some allow free access to 2 or 3 person carpools while others require carpools to pay a small toll. Potential candidates for Managed Lanes in North Carolina include I-40 in Raleigh and I-77 and I-85 in Charlotte.

4) Interstate/Freeway Widening: A modernized widened Interstate system has three main benefits. First, it makes commuting quicker and less stressful. Second, it makes logistics and shipping more dependable. Third, easily navigable roads may increase tourism. While North Carolina uses a Level-of-Service D standard for widening highways, funding constraints may force the DOT to hold off on widening. (North Carolina DOT typically widens a highway from 4-6 lanes if it is expected to carry more than 58,400 to 67,900 vehicles per day depending on topography and truck share.) Some potential candidates for widening include I-26 in Asheville, I-40 near Hickory, Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Raleigh, I-77 between exits 4 and 31 and I-85 around Gastonia and between Kannapolis and China Grove.

5) Performance-Based Highway Maintenance Contracting: Many transportation agencies in the United States have contracted some road and highway maintenance. However, outside of highway landscaping the NCDOT has made limited use of such contracting. Current best practices in highway maintenance contracting rely on longer-term, multi-year performance-based road maintenance contracts. The public agency defines an end goal and the contractor decides how best to meet that outcome. Such contracts create clearly defined performance measures and timetables. The Transportation Research Board has praised contracting as a way to reduce agency costs, increase service, change to a customer-oriented focus, shift risks from public agency to private contractors and other benefits.

More details are available here.

Reason recommends transportation solutions at the state and local level. Other recent state focused reports include:

Examining 20 Years of U.S. Highway and Bridge Performance Trends

XpressWest Train Likely to Fail, Costing Taxpayers Up to $6.5 Billion

Reducing Traffic Congestion and Increasing Mobility in Chicago