RALEIGH — A majority in the North Carolina Senate said Wednesday the General Assembly should get out of the business of choosing which toll road projects should be built, and in turn generated another conflict with Republicans in the House.
Senators tentatively agreed 37-13 to a House bill that initially directed the Department of Transportation to review an alternate route for the planned southern section of Raleigh’s Outer Beltline so that federal funds can start flowing again. But Senate Republicans added language to the bill that also removes the mandate in state law requiring proposed toll projects for Gaston County and Wilmington-area roads and for the Mid-Currituck Bridge to be built.
Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, who offered the provision, said deleting the Garden Parkway, Cape Fear Skyway and the coastal bridge from state law won’t kill these toll projects. Rather, he said, the ideas will be thrown back into the pool of road construction projects being evaluated and prioritized by the state Department of Transportation using hard data.
The language “makes everyone compete on a level-playing field,” Rabon said. “We’re simply giving everyone a fair shake.”
But the law certainly would give the projects black eyes. Rabon and other Republicans have been critical of the toll roads that they argue were directed by political considerations — largely when the General Assembly was under Democratic rule.
Rabon’s change would free up another $63 million annually that legislators previously have pledged to give annually as “gap funding” for debt to build the Mid-Currituck Bridge, a seven-mile span connecting mainland Currituck County with the northern Outer Banks that could trim travel times for vacationers and storm evacuees, and the Garden Parkway.
The parkway, a proposed 22-mile toll road linking Gaston County and west Charlotte, has been opposed by recently elected state legislators and challenged in court by environmentalists last summer. Both projects had been on track for completion in 2016. The Cape Fear Skyway — a 9.5-mile toll road and high-rise bridge — is in its preliminary stages.
The $63 million would increase the state’s Mobility Fund, which spends money on projects of statewide or regional significance that reduce congestion.
“In my opinion, a vote against this, you’re setting back any projects in your areas by some days or even years,” said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, the House Rules Commission’s chairman.
The proposal, however, wouldn’t stop a mandate under state law to build the 20-mile Monroe Bypass, a proposed toll road the state has worked on for more than a decade but also was delayed by environmental challenges.
A final Senate vote is expected today on the bill, which will then return to the House. A primary sponsor of the House version didn’t immediately return a phone call seeking comment. The bill would go to a conference committee to work out a compromise if the House rejects the Senate’s changes.
The southern section of Raleigh’s Outer Beltline, also known as N.C. Highway 540, also would remain a toll project. The General Assembly passed a law in 2011 preventing the state from considering a route that went through several Garner neighborhoods. The decision caused federal transportation officials to halt project planning money. Supporters of the new bill insist the Garner route will never be built but must be studied.
The western portion of the Outer Beltline was completed in 2011 and 2012 as North Carolina’s first modern-era toll road.