After House Bill 817, or the Strategic Transportation Investments bill, passed both the House and Senate, North Carolina Metropolitan Mayors Coalition legislative intern Kathryn Trogdon sat down with Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston and a chair of the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee (JLTOC). The formulas that underpin the bill will be developed by the Strategic Prioritization Workgroup, which the Metro Mayors participate in, and approved by the NC Board of Transportation and the JLTOC. Here is what Kathryn learned:
NCMMC: As chair of the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee, what criteria are you looking for in the formulas for House Bill 817?
JT: A mention of economic growth, commerce growth and job growth, and does transportation need to play a role in that or contribute somehow. That concept was extremely unique. I had also thought about that before, but it had never been implemented. You have to look at the economic vitality of the entire state and use that as one of the factors when you’re determining transportation needs. Is it the only factor? Of course not, but it’s one of many, such as safety, population, getting cars from point A to point B faster with less sitting still on the Interstates and major arteries. All those are very good points, but the formula never had that commerce growth, job growth and economic growth piece, and I thought that addition was a big plus. I liked that piece remaining in the state [competition]. I’m a little bit dismayed they didn’t keep it in the regional [competition]. They, the Senate, opted to pull it out of regional and incorporate something like travel tourism and military bases. Although that’s good and that’s key, it doesn’t fit across all regional sectors of the state. From the regional aspect, I wish it would have maintained that economic component, and I will be discussing that during the interim in the joint transportation oversight committee. I support Military bases 110 percent like all of my colleagues do, but the military establishments in North Carolina are predominately in the east, so, is it the fairest for the piedmont and mountains as well? We will discuss it.
NCMMC: How do you see transportation playing into the economic development?
JT: It’s my opinion that over the years transportation revenues…have been on the decline. I feel like the department [of transportation] has done the best they can with what they had, however; I think, through… previous directions they were getting from past Administrations and General Assemblies, DOT wasn’t able to set the right criteria or priorities as each new session brought new priorities. Two years ago in the last session, we started looking at roads and bridges and rebuilding some of our dilapidated and antiquated bridges. I think that was key. I think that was great. I think we’re doing a super job on those projects. We continue that work into this cycle and this session. But what I’ve also seen during the past years is DOT being forced to look for short cut measures that, in my opinion, have degraded the overall road quality of the state as well as the aesthetic and safety properties of roads throughout our state by over applying a tar and gravel surfacing technique that is not asphalt surfacing. We are using way too much tar and gravel. It’s what we did when the model T’s came to fruition. We went from compressed clay to gravel roads to putting tar on the gravel then to tar and gravel. Then moved up to asphalt and concrete and now it seems that we have fallen too far back to Tar and Gravel. I saw the state going back to more tar and gravel and strongly feel our folks across all North Carolina deserve better. What I think you’ll find most key in our House budget this year is dollars put into resurfacing. Asphalt resurfacing [will be] over 8,500 miles which equates to 11 percent of total road capacity in the state of North Carolina. People that do our research tell me that’s the most we’ve ever put into resurfacing roads. What does our budget do? It brings back the focus to good roads that we were once known for, puts a bunch of folks to work on those roads, and resets the priorities to what we think our folks back home…expect and deserve in the quality of their roads and the expectations from their transportation department.
NCMMC: The House Transportation budget creates a pot for the economic development, what do you intend that to be used for?
JT: For example, if an entity decided “I need to come to North Carolina or expand in North Carolina to do business. We want to come or expand. We’re going to hire a number of individuals but to enable us to get there we have to have rail access” or “we have to have access to the Interstate and the plot of land we currently are looking at doesn’t provide that”. There needs to be a mechanism that provides, if it’s determined to positively benefit the taxpayers, that entity a path to receive the necessary transportation modifications to assist that entity in locating or expanding in North Carolina. We do a portion of it now. It’s not just widely noticed. This puts a focus, an emphasis, if you will on those needs. For the first time, this administration and this General Assembly have worked hard to dismantle those departmental silos that had over many, many, years have been built up around our state departments. Today we are making great inroads in getting those departments to work cohesively. For example, commerce and transportation -Secretary Decker, Secretary Tata often appear joined at the hip, because we’ve torn down those two department’s silos that had been built up and hardened over the years where each department worked independently from the other.
NCMMC: With the new formulas, what projects do you think will fare well and which do you think won’t fare so well?
JT: I’ve had this thought in my mind to get heavy handed politics out of the road building process. I think it’s just as wrong for a legislative individual to put a road into a process as it is for a legislative individual to take a road out of a process. I think that we as legislators should not have that part in the process. I think it should be a broad determination based on criteria that will be set. How they will fare in criteria that are not currently in place yet? Flip a coin. I intend to stand back and let the numbers and the data present what they present. Now, I will thoroughly examine the outcomes of the data. I will thoroughly examine the findings that are attributed to that data, because I also know that as humans we are known to err, I want to make sure that what we are seeking to get and what we get is the most independent and truly factual information as humanly possible. That is what I think North Carolinians insist on from their Department of Transportation. They pay for it and they deserve the best we can afford.
NCMMC: Basically, the criteria shouldn’t be created to get certain roads completed, but should be created independently of the roads?
JT: That’s correct. The criteria should be an umbrella across the state of North Carolina that when the different local back home transportation groups in North Carolina determine that a road needs to be built it goes through the data, it goes through the criteria, and if it comes out saying yes that’s a good road then it should be built. If it’s not a good road it should not be built. It shouldn’t be Rep. John or Rep. Joe or Rep. Kathy or Rep. Mary making those determinations.
Thanks Rep. Torbett for talking with us and sharing your perspective!