Eugene A. "Gene" Conti Jr., secretary of the North Carolina Dept. of Transportation since 2009, is fighting the battle for transportation funding on multiple fronts, including a role in a Federal Highway Administration pilot program that could enable tolls on the state's 182-mile stretch of Interstate 95 as a way to pay for upgrades.
The state already is building a new $1-billion tolled freeway near Raleigh-Durham. A former U.S. Transportation Dept. assistant secretary for policy and design firm vice president as well as current chairman of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' rail committee, he discusses key coming transportation issues with ENR Southeast Editor Scott Judy.
The high-speed-rail funding program has come under a lot of scrutiny since President Obama proposed it. What is rail's role in the U.S. and in North Carolina's future transportation system?
Nationally, we're going to continue to see a number of states be interested in a rail program. [North Carolina has] been pretty aggressive with state dollars [for rail] over the last 20 years, matched by federal support, and we would hope that support would continue. There are other states that have moved forward and will continue to.
The more federal help we get, the better. In North Carolina, we're talking about building incrementally, not designing a whole new system.
How is the state's high-speed-rail program progressing?
We have a very aggressive rail program. We were successful in getting about $600 million in federal stimulus funds, so we're putting those to work on upgrading existing high-speed rail lines, mainly focused between Raleigh and Charlotte. We've gotten a few projects done, and we have a lot of support [from citizens]. It's easy to envision commuter services building off that intercity service.
The new report that NCDOT commissioned to improve Interstate 95 advocates widening the entire highway, mostly by relying on tolls. What are your thoughts on tolling and on prospects for this particular proposal?
Many other states are in the same situation: Revenues from the federal government do not support major modernization of the interstate system. If you want to have an I-95 that continues to support the economy in North Carolina and on the East Coast, we've got to modernize and improve it.
We decided to look at what those needs are over 20 years. We did the environmental and preliminary engineering work, which says we have a $4.4-billion construction, improvement and maintenance project over that time. But we don't have revenue coming in to support it.
We're looking at tolling it from border to border, from Virginia to South Carolina. But we would not start tolling until about halfway through the [20-year] period, after we made improvements, modernized and added capacity.
As we demonstrate that we are improving the corridor and making it safer and more efficient for commercial traffic, people will understand that we also need to pay for the improvements. Tolling is the way we might do that. If there's another [funding] alternative, would be glad to look at it.
Will this be a state-run effort?
We're well aware of the developments in [public-private partnership] financing over the last 10 years, and it could be a hybrid. Parts of it might be done under a P3, and parts might be done under the traditional state-funded mechanisms. We're open to what makes the most sense as we move forward.
There are two critical things I would like to see out of a federal bill: One is stability for at least a few years, so we know what we're getting. If it's level funding, fine, just tell us that. [We also need] flexibility.
Don't prescribe exactly what we have to do with every dollar. Give each state the ability to respond to their [own] needs. We have a different set of needs in North Carolina than they might have in North Dakota or Illinois or Ohio.
We would like to invest more dollars in rail. We should be able to if we're relieving highway congestion as a result. Stability and flexibility are more important than any particular level of funding.
One of the differences between approaches of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate is that the Senate decided [it] could figure out a two-year bill a lot easier than a five-year bill. If you can [figure out how to] cover a two-year bill, do that. Don't spend the next year worrying about how to cover a five-year bill, because that's not helpful to us.
So don't take away the ability to toll. Don't take away the federal financial support through the [Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act] and programs like that, where we can use loan programs to piece together financing packages. These are all important roles for the federal government.