Senate budget writers want to set aside more money to fix the state’s deteriorating highways, so they plan to divert funds next year from a program that paves dirt roads and improves other secondary roads.
The Senate budget released this week would cut the entire $84.8 million in the Highway Fund’s secondary road improvement fund next year, using it instead to shore up maintenance spending. Included in that money is about $15 million that would have been earmarked for putting asphalt on unpaved roads.
But paving dirt roads — even when they carry fewer than 50 cars a day — is still a political priority in North Carolina.
Senators said they would leave untouched a separate Highway Trust Fund account that is expected to generate $57.5 million next year to pave dirt roads. To put that in perspective: It's a little more than half their proposed budget of $110.8 million for building urban freeway loops.
Shifting the $84.8 million would give the state Department of Transportation a total of $910 million for road maintenance next year. That’s still a little less than the $944 million that was bugeted for this year before a slowdown in tax collections forced across-the-board spending cuts at DOT.
DOT officials predict that gas tax and other transportation revenue collections will be down by $300 million a year for the next three years.
But when senators tapped the Highway Fund’s secondary road account, they found a funding source that has been cushioned from the worst of the budget crunch.
Its money comes from the first 1.75 cents tax collected on every gallon of gas and diesel fuel, a funding flow that is not affected when the tax rate changes. Other transportation needs will suffer in July when the state cuts a penny or two from its gas tax – a rate that reflects the ups and downs of wholesale pump prices.
North Carolina had 16,000 miles of dirt roads in 1989, when the legislature made a big commitment to pave most of them. The unpaved mile count has dropped steadily since then, and now the state has only about 4,800 miles of dirt roads.
Environmental and other obstacles will keep about 3,000 miles unpaved, but the state still hopes to put asphalt on 1,800 miles of dirt roads in 85 counties — some of them roads that serve only two or three houses and handle fewer than 50 cars a day.
North Carolina needs money both for maintenance and for paving dirt roads, said Delbert Roddenberry, who oversees secondary roads for DOT.
“We need to maintain what we have, and we need to modernize our unpaved roads to bring them up to date,” Roddenberry said. “We have to do what’s best for the state.”