CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For years, Charlotte political and business leaders complained the city didn’t receive its fair share of state highway funds.
But in a reversal of that long-running theme, the Charlotte area is in a highway building boom, with more than $3 billion in projects under way or planned.
Some of the projects were expedited by former Gov. Bev Perdue and her transportation secretary, Gene Conti, who both left office this month. Conti’s Department of Transportation steered hundreds of millions of dollars to the Charlotte area, sometimes leapfrogging rural areas and smaller cities.
“We have seen some significant attention in last four years, absolutely,” said Bob Morgan of the Charlotte Chamber, which has lobbied for more local highway funding.
Morgan cited two Charlotte-area projects that were advanced by Conti and Perdue: work to complete the city’s outerbelt and rebuilding the Interstate 85 Yadkin River bridge northeast of Charlotte.
“The governor inherited a plan for construction on the outerbelt to start in 2015,” Morgan said. “And we’ll be riding on it in 2014. That is significant.”
Most N.C. highway dollars are steered towards different regions of the state through an often-maligned “Equity Formula,” which Charlotte believes shortchanges cities. That formula, which was created by the General Assembly in 1989, is still in place.
But Conti’s DOT shifted some money – such as funds for urban loops – toward projects with the greatest need. That helped advance the construction of the last six miles of Interstate 485.
In addition, the DOT created the N.C. Mobility Fund for large projects of statewide importance. That helped replace the “structurally deficient” Yadkin River bridge, whose replacement is nearing completion.
Early in his tenure, Conti said, Charlotte leaders made it clear they felt shortchanged by the state.
“My impression was they didn’t feel very good about it, and they made that very clear,” Conti said. “People were very vocal.”
In addition to shifting money and creating the Mobility Fund, Conti said he tried to use more creative financing to build projects faster.
“The first day (Mayor Anthony Foxx) took office, I was in his office talking to him about how we could make things work better,” Conti said. “I think that was a symbolic first step. From there we got a lot of things moving ahead more quickly.”
Bob Cook, the secretary for the Mecklenburg-Union Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MUMPO, said he doesn’t remember another transportation secretary spending as much time in Charlotte as Conti.
Former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory was sworn in as governor Jan. 5. McCrory, who complained about Charlotte being shortchanged in highway dollars during his 14 years as mayor, named former Wake County Schools Superintendent Tony Tata as his secretary of transportation Thursday.
McCrory said Tata’s skills with logistics from his long career in the U.S. Army was an asset.
“If he can do it in Afghanistan, then he can do it here,” McCrory said.
Tata, who was hired as superintendent in 2010, was fired by the new Democratic board in September. Democratic board members cited issues such as their relationship with him, bus problems that affected thousands of students and complaints from some central office administrators and principals about Tata’s leadership style.
Tata said he will organize a bipartisan commission to develop a 25-year state transportation plan.
Part of Conti’s legacy in Charlotte will be the amount of highway construction currently under way.
But at least one critic said the DOT didn’t undertake enough reforms. The Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill has sued to stop construction of two Charlotte-area toll roads – the Garden Parkway in Gaston County and the Monroe Connector/Bypass in Union County.
The law center has charged that the N.C. Turnpike Authority, which is part of the N.C. DOT, cut corners on its federally required Environmental Impact Statements.
Conti has argued the Monroe toll road is critical for the Charlotte area, and the DOT is attempting to correct its environmental study. He said he hopes the state will receive new federal approval in the first half of 2013.
Across the nation, highway departments have increasingly turned to toll roads to help pay for highway construction.
The N.C. Turnpike Authority’s creation preceded Conti’s tenure, but Conti has broadened the concept of toll roads to include existing highways, rather than only creating toll roads by building them from scratch.
The DOT plans to convert a carpool lane on Interstate 77 in north Mecklenburg into a so-called HOT lane, or high-occupancy toll lane. People driving alone would be allowed to drive in the special lane if they paid a toll.
The price of the toll would change depending on demand. Drivers would be guaranteed a certain speed – perhaps 45 mph – for a fee.
Conti also proposed creating tolls along the entire length of Interstate 95 to pay for its maintenance. And DOT officials say that when I-77 in south Charlotte is rebuilt and widened next decade, it will likely include at least one HOT lane each way.
But converting free lanes into toll lanes could be unpopular. On Thursday night, the Cornelius Transportation Advisory Board urged the state to pay for I-77 widening without tolls.
McCrory’s administration must decide whether to continue Conti’s vision of tolling existing roads.
“That will be a decision point for them,” Conti said.