Trying drive the new road-building highway

By Scott Mooneyham | Apr 08, 2014

RALEIGH -- I'm told that one of the wise, old political operatives in the state recently remarked that do-nothing politicians in today's highly partisan environment move down a safer path than those who attempt significant policy changes.

It's a smart observation.

To find myself in complete agreement, I would make a couple of addendums:

_ Politicians wishing to be more than do-nothing types sometimes become locked into that position because making significant changes in government can require money. At the state level, where budgets have to be balanced, tough economic times leave tax revenue stagnant or shrinking

_ Attempting substantial changes to government policy may be tougher now than 20 years ago, but it has never been easy. Elected officials pushing change have always needed to be shrewd, understanding how to horse trade and swing public opinion to their side.

In his first year in office, no one could accuse Gov. Pat McCrory of falling into the do-nothing category.

Few observers, though, would conclude that he has yet demonstrated the kind of political acumen required to see many of his big ideas through to fruition.

One of those ideas is the state's road-building formula.

Last week, the Department of Transportation unveiled some of the changes that will come about under the new road-building formula, called the Strategic Mobility Formula. Legislators approved the changes at the behest of the McCrory administration in 2013.

The state agency posted a priority listing of 1,300 highway projects. Over the next few months, more projects will be added, and local officials and regional DOT engineers will then make their preferences known.

The new formula calls for projects of statewide importance to receive 40 percent of available road-building dollars, with data and not politics driving most of those decisions.

Data also helps determine where the rest of the money goes, but local officials get input too.

The McCrory administration is selling the new road-construction formula by pointing out that the process is open, and that politicians and political appointees are no longer determining projects in a backroom.

The process looks to be a huge improvement over past practices.

Because legislators have already signed off, it would also appear that the road-building formula is pretty much a done deal and a big accomplishment for McCrory.

That may not be the case.

Talking about changes that are theoretical is one thing. Now state legislators get to see the results of the theory. Road maintenance and some rural projects could lose money under the changes.

And as I noted in a recent column, highway dollars are shrinking.

With some legislators already expressing some buyer's remorse last fall, the new road-building formula is not set in stone.

How much stays and how much reverts back to form over the next couple of years may reflect as much about McCrory's on-the-job learning as it does about the merit of the formula itself.

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