I-Team: New ad aims to scare up support for bridge improvements in North Carolina

Tuesday, February 3, 2015
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The ad simulates a bus full of kids on a bridge that comes crashing down.

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- A new ad pulls no punches.

"North Carolina drivers drive on over 2,200 structurally deficient bridges every day," the announcer with the grave voice reads. "We never think of the imminent danger we put our children in, until this happens."

The screen goes to black and fades up with flashing lights and someone posing as an emergency operator says: "We have a bridge collapse with a school bus full of children."

The message is clear: fix our state's bridges now... or else.

The North Carolina Chamber of Commerce released the commercial late last week. It very closely resembles an ad in Iowa that makes the same case; bridges are in such disrepair they pose an immediate danger to drivers and, specifically, school children.

"If we do nothing, it basically is a decision to allow economic decline to happen in North Carolina," said Lew Ebert, President of the NC Chamber.

The commercial isn't so much an appeal to keep our kids safe as it is to invest in our transportation infrastructure.

"It's an economic and future issue," said Ebert. "Our members believe that if we don't think about it and move that idea forward, we don't really know who will advance that issue for our state."

DOT Response

"We have many more needs out there than we have dollars to address them," said DOT Communications Chief Mike Charbonneau.

The Department of Transportation confirms more than a third of the state's bridges and overpasses need some sort of work [repair or replacement]. Charbonneau says of the 13,500 bridges maintained by the DOT, about 5,300 are considered either "structurally deficient" (2,100 bridges) or "functionally obsolete" (3,200 bridges).

According to Charbonneau, fixing all the substandard bridges in the state would cost about $11 billion. This year, he said the department expects to get about $485 million in state and federal funds.

"We definitely share some of the same concerns as the Chamber when it comes to funding transportation infrastructure," Charbonneau said. "If there is a bridge out there that's not safe, that bridge will be closed immediately. But in the meantime, there are may be bridges out there that need to be improved upon that need to be repaired and replaced. There are numerous needs. More needs than we can address which is why we have to look at how we fund infrastructure in North Carolina."

According to state numbers and because of a new funding formula, the DOT is on track to complete 300 more projects over the next 10 years than previously projected.

But even then, Charbonneau says only 18 percent of community needs will get addressed. And that means a need for more money.

"We've got to continue to invest holistically and continue to look for new ways to invest if we want to keep up with growth and continue bringing the jobs here," said Charbonneau.

Critics Respond

The notion that the state should be spending more on infrastructure is a welcome one among many of the Administration's critics. Democrats and progressives have complained about Republican budgets and spending decisions since conservatives took control of the state Legislature in 2010.

"The spot itself is very effective," said Rob Schofield with the liberal think tank NC Policy Watch. "It makes some good points. Our infrastructure is crumbling in this state. But the point that's missed by the ad is our infrastructure is crumbling in so many other places."

As Schofield puts it, the Chamber endorsed budgets which cut total education spending, including funding for school transportation and teacher assistants, many of whom drive school busses.

"The school busses that those kids are riding on are older today because of the budget that the Chamber helped get passed in the General Assembly in the last two years," said Schofield. "We cut taxes on folks at the top. We cut spending on things like TAs who drove the busses and made the school busses have to run an extra 50,000 miles. I wish they'd be just as concerned about that as they are the roads. I agree with them that roads are a problem but the infrastructure of the state is crumbling in a number of different ways that need addressing as well."

Transportation Funding

But the commercial isn't about the busses. It's clearly about transportation funding. And to that end, the Chamber has made some suggestions; 16 suggestions to be exact. They all involve raising revenue which could mean anything from a bond to new fees to increased taxes.

"We gave them 16 ideas," said Ebert. "Any combination of those would be a plan. But we want the legislature and governor to figure out how that works. We're trying to get the discussion started on something that's been a problem in our state for decades and if we don't do something now, we could be in a tough position as a state."

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