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Senate OKs compromise to let DOT study TriEx Red Route through Garner

(Updated Thursday 5/30/13.) The Senate voted 44-5 today to approve a compromise with the House on legislation to let the state Department of Transportation resume planning work on the Triangle Expressway Southeast Extension, which will take the 540 Outer Loop across southern Wake County. A House vote is expected Monday.

The language was recommended by House and Senate conferees to settle differences between the two chambers. The measure repeals a 2011 law that stopped DOT from considering the unpopular Red Route, which would take the six-lane toll road through Garner -- destroying homes, parks and churches. The repeal bill has been stalled since February, when the House rejected Senate language that would cancel other toll-road projects.

The Red Route ban was intended only to keep DOT from running the new expressway through Garner, but it had the effect of halting DOT efforts to build it on any route. Federal regulators insisted on a full DOT study of the Red Route as an alternative to the more popular Orange Route, which would damage sensitive wetlands.

State and Wake County government leaders and DOT officials have said they'll never approve construction of the Red Route, but they'll allow road planners to study it. Garner residents supported the law blocking DOT study of the Red Route. Two of the five votes against its repeal Thursday came from Garner's two senators, Democrat Dan Blue and Republican Chad Barefoot.

The new compromise language duplicates provisions of the Senate-approved budget, which is now being considered in the House, and the House-approved Strategic Mobility Formula bill.

Prius, Tesla, Volt drivers et al: Ready to pay new hybrid / electric car fees?

If the state Senate gets its way, North Carolina will join a small but growing number of states that collect extra fees or taxes from drivers of all-electric cars and hybrid fuel-electric cars.

(Update: See 5/28/13 Road Worrier column "Hybrid, electric car fees could help make up for lost taxes" with reader comments.)

The budget rolling through the Senate this week includes new annual fees of $100 for plug-in, electric-only cars and $50 for hybrids. The Senate figures this would generate an extra $1.5 million a year for state transportation needs.

The rationale for electric cars is straightforward: They use our public roads, but their drivers don't pay the fuel taxes that help build and maintain the roads.

When it comes to hybrids, the issue is murkier: They use gas or diesel fuel, so their drivers already pay fuel taxes. Are hybrid owners to be penalized for taking steps to improve their fuel economy?

Here's the budget language:

ADDITIONAL ANNUAL FEE FOR ELECTRIC AND HYBRID VEHICLES

SECTION 34.21.(a) G.S. 20‑87 is amended by adding the following new subdivisions to read:

"(13) Additional fee for certain electric vehicles. – At the time of an initial registration or registration renewal, the owner of a plug‑in electric vehicle that is not a low‑speed vehicle and that does not rely on a nonelectric source of power shall pay a fee in the amount of one hundred dollars ($100.00) in addition to any other required registration fees.

(14) Additional fee for certain hybrid vehicles. – At the time of an initial registration, or registration renewal, the owner of a hybrid vehicle that is not a low‑speed vehicle shall pay a fee in the amount of fifty dollars ($50.00) in addition to any other required registration fees."

House rebuffs a push to put more limits on I-95 toll option

A House proposal that won unanimous approval last week to allow limited toll collection on Interstate 95 faced an unexpected challenge from toll foes when it returned for a final House floor vote Tuesday.

The House eventually gave its final approval -- not unanimous, this time -- and sent to the Senate a bill that would let the state Department of Transportation charge tolls only on new lanes added to interstate highways, while guaranteeing that drivers still can use the original lanes without paying tolls.

Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican, tried to amend the bill to give the legislature power to veto any DOT decision to add toll lanes to an existing interstate highway. He said he supported the legislature's ongoing efforts to remove politics from transportation decision-making ... but not on toll roads.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to leave it in DOT’s hands” to decide which roads get tolls, Speciale said. “I don’t think we should abdicate our position and turn it over to an unelected bureaucrat, to let DOT make that decision for us.”

Bill supporters said local planning boards will have veto power over future toll projects, and DOT will be required to consult the legislature. They said Speciale's proposal would undo the support of DOT and Senate leaders for the measure, which preserves drivers' option to continue using interstates without paying tolls.

“I see an issue with I-95 because we have so many different opinions up and down the highway,” said Rep. Pat McElraft, an Emerald Isle Republican. “When you leave it up to people in the General Assembly, you might have one opnion down in Lumberton and another opinion from another area of I-95 – and you might have representatives fighting each other. We need to leave it to DOT.”

The House defeated Speciale's amendment by 97 to 18, and then approved the bill by 108 to 7.

Senate budget taxes hybrid cars, extends ferry tolls, broadens transportation board

Here are some of the transportation funding and policy changes outlined in the proposed Senate budget (PDF) released Sunday. Some of these are new proposals, and others were previously aired this spring in separate legislation:

Try to acquire federal land around Oregon Inlet: The Oregon Inlet Land Acquisition Task Force is established to study the state's options for acquiring land around the Oregon Inlet from the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service so the state can preserve the navigability of Oregon Inlet.

Charge tolls on all ferries: Order the state Department of Transportation to begin collecting tolls on all seven ferry routes by November 1, with rates high enough to generate $5 million to $10 million a year in revenues. This would include tolls on the two routes that the General Assembly said last year would stay toll-free: Hatteras Inlet and Currituck Sound. [MORE] ...

If you blow an .05, are you too drunk to drive?

Last week the National Transportation Safety Board called on North Carolina and the other states to dial back the blood-alcohol limit used by police and the courts to determine whether someone is too impaired to be allowed to drive. The NTSB recommends .05 percent, much more strict than the current DWI standard of .08 percent.

(5/21/13 update: See Road Worrier: If you blow a .05, safety board says you’re not fit to drive with reader comments.)

Is this a good idea? Does the current .08 standard protect dangerous drunks who shouldn't be allowed to drive? Would a change to .05 save lives and make everybody safer? Or would it go too far?

The New York Times aired a debate on this last week, with a handful of commentators offering pros and cons.

It turns out that .05 is the DWI standard enforced across most of Europe, most of Asia, most of South America, half of Africa, and Australia. The United States and Canada stand out as .08 outliers on this NTSB map.

Legislators make progress on speeds, tolls and transportation money

Raleigh's Tift Merritt has a lovely song that comes to mind on the General Assembly's frantic "Crossover Day." Any bill that didn't clear one chamber by the end of the day Thursday was eliminated from consideration by the other chamber.

In a weary voice, Merritt sings:

I don't want to talk to nobody,
Don't want to make no plans,
I'm so tired of this party,
I've had all my laughs.
I'll send you something when I cross over,
Something when I cross over.

Here's where we stand, after Crossover Day, on major transportation legislation: ... [MORE]

NC House OKs I-95 tolls, but only for new lanes


View NC tolls for I-95 in a larger map

In a unanimous vote Thursday, the House agreed to let the state collect tolls to help pay for the addition of new lanes on I-95 and other interstate highways -- but only if drivers retain the option to drive toll-free in the old lanes. (5/18/13 update: See today's story with reader comments.)

Eastern North Carolina political leaders and residents of the eight I-95 counties have opposed a state Department of Transportation proposal to collect tolls on both new and old lanes to finance a $4.4 billion widening and overhaul for I-95. The aging interstate would be expanded from four to eight lanes on the busiest 50 miles between I-40 in Johnston County and St. Pauls in Robeson County, and six lanes on the remainder of its 182 miles between the South Carolina and Virginia borders. Under the original proposal, drivers would begin paying tolls in all lanes before the project is finished.

If the Senate agrees with the House approach, DOT will have to adjust its plans.

"If they decide they want to toll any lanes on interstates that exist in North Carolina, they can only do that if they build new lanes," said Rep. Jeff Collins, a Rocky Mount Republican who sponsored the bill. "They can't toll the current lanes now in anticipation of building new non-toll lanes later. They can't build a toll lane unless they keep they same number of non-toll lanes that were in existence before they built those toll lanes."

Rep. Elmer Floyd, a Fayetteville Democrat, said the legislation will be welcome news for local residents and trucking companies that depend on I-95.

"This bill will help the poorest portion of our state," Floyd said.

Collins said DOT officials have spoken tentatively of adding the new lanes and giving them higher speed limits, as an incentive to out-of-state drivers who might be willing to pay the toll.

"There might be a 10 mph advantage to paying the toll, or something like that, if you wanted to fly through our state," Collins said. "People in my area can go up and down I-95 without paying a toll."

Ocracoke vandals target ticket-writing troopers' cruisers

Vandals on Ocracoke Island used paint and concrete over the weekend to damage the cars of two State Highway Patrol troopers who were enforcing state alcohol and seat-belt traffic laws.

The island was crowded with visitors to the 30th annual Ocracoke Invitational Surf Fishing Tournament. Over the weekend, two troopers handed out 59 tickets, including 32 citations for seat-belt violations and five charges of driving while intoxicated.

They woke up Saturday morning to find that their patrol cars had been vandalized overnight – one splattered with green paint, the other with a concrete block thrown through the rear window – in their motel parking lot.

"It's embarrassing that this has happened," Sgt. Jason Daniels of the Hyde County Sheriff's Department told the Ocracoke Current.

The Highway Patrol spokesman, First Sgt. Jeff Gordon, said he did not know whether the vandalism was intended as retaliation from Ocracokers unhappy about the troopers' presence there. But he said the Highway Patrol would continue to enforce traffic laws on the island.

“We’re paid to basically enforce the motor vehicle laws of the state, and we’re going to do that,” Gordon said. “It’s no different whether you’re in Ocracoke or up in Boone or wherever. Our number-one goal is to ensure people’s safety. When you have a large influx of people in an area, we’re going to be there to be sure people are safe.”

Triangle commuters are paying those TriEx tolls. Are you?

View Triangle Expressway in a larger map

Traffic counts are rising every month on the Triangle Expressway, NCDOT says.

How come? There were plenty of pessimistic predictions about the state's first modern toll road, and angry vows from Wake County drivers who swore they would never pay the tolls. (5/7/13 update: See today's Road Worrier.)

There's a few-mile stretch of the 540 Outer Loop, between NC 54 and NC 55 near Research Triangle Park, that was toll-free for a few years before toll collections started last August. Sure enough, the monthly traffic counts fell as soon as the toll-free status went away.

But the numbers rebounded, suggesting that Triangle commuters decided they'd rather pay for the privilege than take another road to work in the morning and home in the afternoon. You can find these and other TriEx stats in a pair of PDF files that are too large (sorry!) to attach to this blog post: The 2012 report (7.1MB) and the 2013 First Quarter Report (11.9MB).

TriEx is still in a "ramp-up" period of slow growth that was predicted by the traffic experts before it was built. It'll take a few years to see how busy it really can get, and it will always be mostly a weekday rush-hour thing. But the numbers show it is getting busier now.

I'll be reporting on this Monday, and I would like to speak with TriEx drivers -- and TriEx avoiders. Tell me why you use TriEx or what else you use instead -- is NC 55 looking better these days? Please email me with your name, your thoughts, and your workday phone number so I can contact you Monday.

Having Foxx at US DOT will be good for NC, Conti says

President Barack Obama's decision to make Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx the next U.S. transportation secretary is good news for North Carolina, former state Transportation Secretary Gene Conti said Sunday.

“Because he knows North Carolina, and he will be responsive to North Carolina’s needs,” said Conti, who served as an assistant U.S. transportation secretary during the Clinton administration and headed the state DOT under former Gov. Bev Perdue.

Foxx is expected to be named Monday to succeed Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Illinois congressman.

“Obviously he can’t just direct money willy-nilly to North Carolina, but I will tell you that Illinois fared very well under Secretary LaHood. I think North Carolina will have a sympathetic ear there. I think this is excellent news for North Carolina,” Conti said.

Conti praised Foxx for his work as Charlotte mayor to advance the city’s rail transit plan and to push for freight and passenger rail improvements and completion of Charlotte’s I-485 Outer Loop. When Conti chaired a national railroad policy committee meeting in Charlotte, Foxx “spoke very eloquently about rail, off the cuff, and he wowed the crowd about how important the rail connections would be for Charlotte. I think he is very capable.”