A bill that would create a new fund for large transportation projects is moving through the Senate despite what appeared to be a vote against it in the Senate Transportation committee Wednesday.
Backed by House Transportation Committee Chairman Rep. John Torbett, the megaproject recommendation came from an interim House committee tasked with finding solutions for long-term transportation needs. The provision was tacked onto an agency bill, House Bill 110.
Torbett, R-Gaston, explained that the fund would be used for projects that are large in scale with a price tag too high to work under the Strategic Transportation Investment plan, or STI, structure that state lawmakers approved several years ago. STI has a $200 million cap on projects. Using the repaving of Interstate 95 as an example, Torbett said, “You would have to carve up a $4 billion project into $200 million dollar projects to get it fixed.”
House Bill 110 would create the fund but doesn’t put any money into it. Torbett suggested that the General Assembly in the future might consider raising a tax to fund such megaprojects outside the regular transportation budget. “We did not choose to go the revenue route in this session,” Torbett noted.
“This is simply a tool in a tool box,” he added. “It does nothing to upset the STI.”
Sen. Kathy Harrington, R-Gaston, was uncharacteristically blunt in her opposition to it.
“This is the single worst piece of legislation I’ve seen in the years I’ve been here,” Harrington told Torbett, saying the STI had been enacted to take transportation funding decisions out of the hands of politicians. “This puts it right back in … this goes right behind the back of the STI.”
Sens. Wesley Meredith, R-Cumberland, and Joyce Krawiec, R-Forsyth, seconded Harrington’s opposition to the provision.
“I think this goes outside the STI and allows a group of people to decide where the dollars go,” Meredith said. “I’m not supportive.”
But Sen. Bill Rabon, one of the STI’s chief architects, nonetheless said he would vote for it “with trepidation.”
“This does fly into STI, and of all the legislation I’ve worked on the last six years, I’m most proud of that,” said Rabon, R-Brunswick.
But citing the work of the interim committee, he warned that, without some mechanism for large statewide projects, the current transportation budget would be hard-pressed to cover them.
Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Davis, R-Macon, called for a voice vote. Several more noes than ayes were audible, but Davis announced the bill would move on to the Senate Rules Committee.