A 21st century public infrastructure plan

Published April 9, 2021

By Tom Campbell

Let’s applaud Governor Roy Cooper for recognizing that North Carolina’s public infrastructure is inadequate. In his budget proposals to the legislature Cooper includes more than $1 billion for the coming two years for capital improvements. But the main thrust of his recommendations come in a proposed $4.7 billion bond referendum package of infrastructure improvements. While we wholeheartedly endorse the governor’s proposals, we take issue with his allocations for the proceeds.
Our main challenge is with the $675 million Cooper recommends for Universities in the current budget and $783 million in the November bond package. Let us remember that $980 million of the 2016 Connect NC $2 billion bond package was allocated for our public universities and, while we acknowledge that our system still has needs, especially resulting from the pandemic, we suggest a temporary hold on major capital funding. Higher education is currently in the midst of great change, a revolution that promises to shift priorities and needs for the future. Let us wait a bit until we get a clearer picture of where capital will be needed.
Transportation funding also doesn’t make our priority list for two reasons. First, $700 million in transportation bonds were just sold in October 2020. We acknowledge needs for municipal airports, bridges, passenger rail and roads but recent accountability and oversight problems with DOT cause us to put a pause on more spending until we are assured each dollar will be well spent.
Here is our priority list for public infrastructure projects:
Priority 1: Last mile Broadband Internet – A 21st century home without broadband can be compared to a 1930s home without electricity. As of February 2021, 394,000 residents have no broadband connection capable of the statewide average of 115 Mbps download speed. Another 118,000 people don’t have access to any connection and only 46.8 percent have access to what is considered a low-priced Internet plan costing $60 or less per month. We have received federal grants and have appropriated state funds for broadband, but we still need a full court press to ensure that 100 percent of our homes, schools and businesses have access to this 21st century necessity.
Priority 2: Clean water, sewer and stormwater – North Carolina has an estimated 2,000 community water systems, 538 owned by local governments. Some were installed a century ago and are aging, poorly maintained or inadequate for current needs. In addition to being a health and safety issue, clean water is essential for our state’s economic prosperity. Estimates are that between $17 and $26 billion are required before 2035 to upgrade and replace water and sewer systems. In times of heavy rains or storms millions of gallons of raw sewage have spilled into nearby surface waters and contaminated drinking water, killed shellfish, closed beaches and caused algae blooms. Recent clean water funding is helping, but we propose as much as $900 million of this bond package address water, sewer and stormwater runoff issues.
Priority 3: Public school buildings – Far too large a percentage of our public schools are 50 or more years old. These out-of-date building designs commonly lack essential central heating, air conditioning and ventilation. An estimated $8 billion is needed for new schools and we would allocate at least $1 billion from a bond package. Education is the number one priority of state government and a wise investment for the future.
Priority 4: Rural redevelopment – The pandemic, coupled with recent storms, has exacerbated our state’s rural problems. We’ve talked for years about rural problems, but we have not done much but talk. We would suggest a bond allocation specifically directed toward rural communities. Working with our Golden Leaf Foundation, Rural Center and philanthropic organizations we would envision matching grants or block grants be awarded to rural communities with proposals that rebuild or restore viability.
We leave it to our leaders to determine the final amount and allocation of a bond package, but strongly encourage them to consider the above list. We can at least afford the $3.2 billion Treasurer Dale Folwell’s Debt Affordability Study said we could borrow without endangering our excellent credit rating.
We encourage our leadership to put “A 21st Century Public Infrastructure” bond referendum on the ballot this November and are convinced the public will approve the package. Not only will the projects put people to work and help our economy, but they will help restore an aging and inadequate public infrastructure.