Cities Continue to Play Key Role Addressing Evolving Transportation Challenges | WRAL TechWire

Cities Continue to Play Key Role Addressing Evolving Transportation Challenges

by William Pitt

Whether self-driving cars or electric engines, the world of transportation is changing. How rapidly those changes evolve and what that means for our transportation networks going forward is anyone’s guess. But this much is certain: Our system of roads – as has been the case for more than a century now – will continue to be central to bringing goods to market, people to their places of work and generally connecting all of us to one another.

While more fuel efficient and electric vehicles will mean less pollution for our environment, those changes will also mean less gasoline purchased, and right now, how we maintain our roads is directly tied to the taxes collected per gallon of gas purchased.

One aspect of that maintenance that many people are not aware of is just how much that responsibility falls on local city and town governments.

While North Carolina state government and its Department of Transportation maintain one of the largest state-supported road systems in the country, some 80,000 road miles, our city and town governments maintain another 23,000 miles within municipal borders.

In my city of Washington, we maintain 59 miles of city streets; in the City of Sanford, the total is 130 miles; the City of Raleigh maintains 1,100 miles of city streets.

Here are some more numbers to put that in perspective: State DOT has an annual transportation budget of about $4.7 billion; by comparison North Carolina cities and towns are estimated to have spent $1.6 billion on transportation in 2018.

While the state does pass on a portion of its collected fuel taxes to cities and towns, that money – often referred to as Powell Bill funds – is about $147 million, or about 9 percent of total municipal spending on transportation.

As of this writing, the League of Municipalities was working to persuade legislators to bump up that amount, as it has remained flat for several years in a row.

At the beginning of this column, I noted how much uncertainty there is around our transportation future. Rosy scenarios would have self-driving cars zipping around highways and city streets in just a few years, with motorists (should we call them that in the future?) reading the day’s news on the way to work, and ride-sharing companies causing large swaths of the population to ditch their cars altogether. Smart technology and Internet-of-Things advances will allow traffic to move more freely, and people to get from place to place more efficiently.

The reality will likely be less smooth. How many of these advances will depend on small cell technology build-out, and the development of real 5G bandwidth with actual capacity to handle much more wireless data, rather than the current use of “5G” as a marketing tool? Will any of that technology build-out come to rural communities, given the private sector’s struggles to deliver just basic broadband to rural North Carolina? How will safety concerns be addressed as driverless vehicles take to the roads? What about the need for electric charging stations, and how that need is met?

Finally, how will we pay for our transportation networks and the new types of infrastructure needed to keep them effective and functioning amid declining fuel revenues?

These aren’t easy questions to answer. But, as cities and towns have always played a primary role in meeting the infrastructure needs of our citizens and businesses, you can rest assured that they will continue to do so in this changing transportation landscape.

City officials from across the state enjoy representation on a new commission created by the state Department of Transportation to examine this future and the challenges it will pose amid declining gas tax dollars. And staff at the League of Municipalities is helping to shape dialogue there and in other forums moving forward.

We are committed to playing a key role in thought leadership as this transition continues. And we will continue to help our state and our cities and towns modernize to meet these challenges.

William Pitt is a member of the Washington City Council and President of the N.C. League of Municipalities

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