Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Perdue's pledge on I-485

Gov. Bev Perdue's announcement Monday of a new financing plan to begin construction of the last remaining portions of I-485 around Charlotte before the end of the year is an example of why folks have learned not to bet against Perdue. When she pledged back in February to start construction by the end of the year and finish it within a few years, it was obviously a risky pledge. The reason was simple: There was little if any money available, and the economy was on a long downhill slide. As Deputy DOT Secretary Susan Coward noted in a memo, "it is highly likely that all of these projects will be delayed due to lack of funding."

It reminded me of former Gov. Jim Hunt's promise back in 1996 to cut the travel time for a new Raleigh-Charlotte passenger train from nearly four hours to two hours -- by the time he left office. It was an audacious pledge, and one that would surely cause travelers to flock to the train. The state has steadily trimmed time from the train schedule over the ensuing 13 years, but it isn't close to a two-hour trip yet. It can take millions of dollars to trim a minute or so from the schedule -- and making trains run faster at the same time you're rebuilding tracks and making seven stops is incredibly difficult. Even with great steps forward, the trip now takes three hours and 12 minutes from Raleigh to Charlotte.

When I talked with Pat Simmons, head of N.C. DOT's Rail Division back in May, he said everyone had learned a lot since Hunt made that two-hour pledge.

We didn't get there," he said, "but we have made a lot of progress."
And I wrote: "I wouldn't bet against Perdue. But if the hoped-for funding doesn't come through, there is precedent for this approach: No, we didn't keep our promise, but we sure made some progress."
This deal still isn't done. As Perdue acknowledged in a meeting Monday with the Observer's editorial board, she may be on the phone next week with firms urging them to participate in the design/build/finance method of infrastructure construction that other states such as Texas have used.
It's a novel thing here in what used to be called The Good Roads State. It would require construction firms to participate in financing the project -- split into three sections -- and get paid back over 10 years. It might mean the freeway would be finished by 2015 instead of just being started by then.
But you've got to give her credit for coming up with a plan that might jump-start the I-485 completion. I wouldn't bet against her on this one, either.