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Western could get largest share of proposed state infrastructure bond

fr mccrorybelcherOf all the constructions on Western Carolina University’s campus, the distinctly non-glamorous Natural Sciences Building might have seemed like an odd place to host a visit from Gov. Pat McCrory. In the classroom where McCrory sat with a panel of university representatives and state administrators, a tile hung loosely from the ceiling and the hum of the HVAC system reverberated through the concrete walls, which weren’t quite expansive enough to comfortably contain the assembly of officials and media representatives gathered there.

But actually, the building was what his visit was about. 

McCrory is pushing for a special election this fall, hoping voters will approve a pair of infrastructire bonds totaling $2.85 billion to build everything from highway expansions to facilities at state parks — and a $114.9 million science, technology, engineering and math building at WCU in place of the 1970s Natural Sciences Building where McCrory explained his proposal. 

“It’s the largest single project in the bond proposal overall for any area of investment in any area of the state,” said Lee Roberts, the state’s budget director. “That represents a significant commitment by the administration not only to this campus but to this region, and it’s obviously a reflection of the need here that you clearly demonstrated.”

Four decades ago when the building was new, the university had only 15 nursing majors and no engineering majors. Today, WCU has 424 nursing majors and a robust engineering program. There are 2,300 students in health and human sciences programs, nearly 600 in technology and engineering programs and about 500 in biological and physical science programs. All those students need the classes that are taught in the aging building. 

Because of the less-than-perfect structure, it’s impossible for the university to offer those courses in the state-of-the-art manner it would like to. The building vibrates, rendering precision instruments useless. There’s no space for computers, and the building has mold problems. 

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“We have a very needy building,” Chancellor David Belcher said. 

While the WCU project will be the largest project on tap, should the bond meet approval, it’s far from being the only one. Though a complete list of projects has not yet been released, McCrory said the $2.85 billion would pay for 304 projects. And it would actually be split into two separate bonds — $1.48 billion for non-highway projects like the WCU science building and $1.37 million for highway projects. 

“Once you react, you’ve waited too long and the competition has beaten you,” McCrory said. “We’re right now in a reaction mode in many areas of infrastructure because we have not had a major investment in capital in over 15 years.”

These are all projects that need doing, he said, and the time to borrow is now, when interest rates are at a historic low. 

“If you delay, the cost of construction is going to go higher and higher and higher,” McCrory said. “Now is the time for action.”

That’s why he’s pushing legislators to put the question on the ballot for November, even though no other state elections are being held this year. That will mean that voting on it in 2015 will come with a higher price tag than waiting until 2016, because some municipalities wouldn’t otherwise be holding an election. McCrory’s recommending that the Legislature reimburse counties for any extra money the election costs them but maintains that, regardless of the election’s price tag, the difference in interest rates from this year to next will likely mean a net gain for the state by deciding now. 

Generally speaking, local legislators support the idea of investing in infrastructure for North Carolina. But, Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, said, “the devil’s in the details.”

“We’ll be trying to get a fair distribution of the bond money across the state so we get our share here in Western North Carolina,” he said, so he’ll be waiting to see the full list of projects before staking out a position.

But Queen’s definitely in support of the new building for Western, an investment he believes is sorely needed. Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, is with him on that. 

“That science building really needs to be replaced,” he said. 

Davis said he’d be ready to vote for the $1.48 billion non-highway bond, which includes the science building, but isn’t so sure about the highway bond. Not because he doesn’t think the road projects are needed, but because he’s not sure the bond is the best way to pay for them. 

“For many years, about $250 million a year has gone out of the highway trust fund into the general fund of North Carolina,” he said. “The Legislature has been using that money for other obligations.

“If we stopped that practice, over four or five years that would take care of the money that would have been set aside by the bond, and it’s a pay as you go,” he said. 

But, as Queen said, the devil is truly in the details. It will be up to the Legislature to sort through them in time to decide whether North Carolina voters will have a spending decision to make at the polls in November.

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