RALEIGH – This year’s high-profile Minneapolis bridge disaster exposes North Carolina’s need for new state transportation priorities. That’s the key finding in a new John Locke Foundation Spotlight report.
“The summer bridge collapse on Interstate 35 should serve as a wake-up call,” said report author Daren Bakst, JLF Legal and Regulatory Policy Analyst. “That Minneapolis tragedy highlights the need for transportation policy that sets proper priorities, starting with safety. Unfortunately, North Carolina’s transportation policy has been hijacked by a philosophy that believes environmental and ‘smart growth’ priorities are as important or more important than transportation priorities.”
The federal government labels 5,082 North Carolina bridges as deficient, Bakst said. Deficient bridges are either: “structurally deficient,” which means they have deteriorated; or “functionally obsolete,” which means the bridge design does not match current usage patterns.
“Nearly 30 percent of North Carolina bridges earn this label of ‘deficient,’” Bakst said. “By percentage, the state ranks 32nd in the nation. By total number of deficient bridges, North Carolina fares worse. We rank 10th in total number of deficient bridges.”
The state could devote more resources to repairing and replacing bridges if policymakers would set more sensible transportation priorities, Bakst said. “You would think transportation policy would focus on transportation,” he said. “The core purpose of transportation policy should be to address North Carolinians’ mobility needs. In determining those needs, the government generally should look at the voluntary transportation choices made by individuals and then develop policies around those choices.”
North Carolina’s transportation policy has other goals, Bakst said. “This state’s policies are more concerned with the environment, aesthetics, and centrally planned high-density development that’s labeled ‘smart growth,’” he said. “Transportation policy is seen as a means of changing public behavior and living arrangements.”
This policy is expressed clearly in public documents, including the Transit 2001 Commission report and the latest Statewide Transportation Plan, Bakst said. “These reports advocate objectives such as enhancing streetscapes, restricting motor vehicles, preserving land, enhancing cultural resources, or meeting other non-transportation goals,” he said. “Shouldn’t a transportation dollar cover a transportation expense?”
A key piece of this social engineering involves public transit, Bakst said. “The Statewide Transportation Plan recommended more than doubling public transit’s share of the state transportation budget to 9.1 percent,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with investing in public transit to the extent that funding is commensurate with demand. The investment, though, is grossly disproportional to demand. If the state devotes more and more money to public transit, critical infrastructure needs like highway bridges receive less attention.”
Charlotte offers a good example of overemphasis on transit spending, Bakst said. “The Charlotte-area metropolitan planning organization plans to spend 57.5 percent of its budget on public transit,” he said. “Do more than half of the people in the area use public transit? No. This money affects just 2.6 percent of commuters and about one-half of 1 percent of all urban motorized travel.”
Charlotte cannot fill the buses it has now, Bakst said. “Bus ridership in the Charlotte area averages 6.7 riders per bus,” he said. “That’s well below the national average for public bus systems. Eighty-seven percent of the seating and standing spots on Charlotte-area buses are empty.”
Now is the time to rethink priorities, Bakst said. “Wasting money on low-priority transit service or non-transportation projects is bad government, especially when the state has critical infrastructure needs like deficient bridges,” he said. “Policymakers need to get back on the right track. It should not take a major bridge collapse and lost lives in North Carolina to prompt them to rethink their priorities.”
Daren Bakst’s Spotlight report, “No, Fix the Roads First: How N.C. has taken transportation out of transportation policy,” is available at the JLF web site. For more information, please contact Bakst at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].