NC Officials Warn Of Lost Federal Transportation Funds

Apr 23, 2015

North Carolina lawmakers have made new funding for outdated transportation, especially repairing roads and bridges, a priority this year. But at the same time as the state is looking to ramp up, it could lose funding from Washington.

State Transportation Secretary Tony Tata laid out the dilemma at a Charlotte Chamber of Commerce transportation summit last week.

Credit Ben Bradford / WFAE

“We have about six weeks before federal funding goes away if nothing is done,” Tata said. “That’s about 28 percent of our budget.”

North Carolina receives more than a $1 billion from the federal government to fund the transportation department each year, which can be used to repair interstates, roads, bridges, rail, and port dredging projects.

But the law that allows the government to fund transit projects expires May 31. A couple of months later, the Congressional Budget Office expects the accounts holding those funds will effectively run dry.

Congress has prevented that from happening since 2008. But POLITICO transportation reporter Heather Caygle says they’ve relied on budget tricks to offset some of the cost.

“The problem is they’ve used up a lot of those offsets already,” says Caygle. “So now they’re going back and looking under the Congressional couch cushions, and they’re trying to find money anywhere they can, essentially.”

Caygle says the parties are already meeting about another short-term patch to keep federal transportation dollars flowing. Former Obama Admininistration transportation secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican, is skeptical.

“I think it’s very unlikely. I really do,” says LaHood.

He says the biggest problem is that the federal gas tax is too low, forcing Congress to keep finding other funding.

“The big pot of money that built America that built our interstate systems that run all throughout this region was built with the Highway Trust Fund. That’s funded through the gas tax that people pay when they buy a gallon of gasoline,” LaHood says. “Hasn’t been raised for 20 years. You can’t think of anything that hasn’t been raised in 20 years.”

North Carolina just raised its gas tax to deal with a similar problem on the state level. But there’s little political will for that in Washington or agreement on another way to fund transportation.