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Stripped back Mobility Fund offers opportunities for better projects, project selection

Governor Perdue got her Mobility Fund in the House Transportation budget, but not in the form she would have liked. The Fund is now more placeholder than budget bucket – a simple fix to enable widening of I-85 north of the Yadkin River. It would appear likely that the Senate will take up the House’s version of the Fund in the budget consolidation process.

The initial money will come from the Turnpike Authority – $39 million of unused ‘gap funding’ for the still-to-be constructed mid-Currituck Bridge and the Monroe Connector and bypass.

Before the Fund gets any new sources of revenue the Department of Transportation will have developed a set of selection criteria for Mobility Fund projects. According to authorizing bill language, these projects must be of state-wide or regional significance and ‘relieve congestion and enhance mobility across all modes of transportation.’ This would include public transportation.

The Fund does promise some relief of political pressure to fix the ‘equity formula’ that renders the Highway Trust Fund incapable of delivering critical but expensive projects due to the way it diffuses money around the state regardless of need. That remains problematic.

But as conceived by the House, the Fund does offer some prospect of new expenditures on public transportation as well as the hope that the Department of Transportation will draft selection criteria that takes into account long-term congestion relief, lifecycle and environmental costs, as well as access and equity considerations.

What the authorizing language currently lacks is a direction that DOT must seek public input while considering selection criteria options. Prioritization remains a largely opaque process for all but the most closely engaged of observers. Considering the impact transportation infrastructure has on daily lives this lack of transparency is at best regrettable. At worst it is cover for bad ideas becoming reality.

Even if not explicitly directed, DOT would do well to lift public confidence in the department and in the projects that become high priorities by deciding to seek input from local governments, statutory planning organizations and the public during the selection criteria deliberation process.

The 2011 session promises to be an active one for transportation. The creation of the Mobility Fund brings to two the number of state transportation funds that are in need of long-term sources of revenue. The Intermodal Fund that will be used to match local public transportation dollars raised through referendum-authorized local sales taxes is in need of a revenue stream. Starting from next year, referenda are expected in multiple counties.

A balanced approach to new revenue distribution is therefore vital. That revenue discussion would be greatly enhanced by placing Highway Trust Fund and prioritization reform on the table.

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