August 6, 2013

A conversation with the Outer Banks’ new
representative to the state Board of Transportation


BY CATHERINE KOZAK


Malcolm Fearing is one of those Dare County natives who willingly inserts himself in local issues, some would say as an activist citizen, some would say as a burr.  A persistent advocate for good government, he is a familiar figure at board meetings, often armed with reams of notes and stacks of documents.

But he didn’t ask for his latest role serving on one of the state’s most powerful boards. 

Fearing, a member of an old Manteo family, was appointed last spring by Gov. Pat McCrory to represent Division 1 on the North Carolina Board of Transportation.

“When the governor called, I explained two things to him,” Fearing said in a recent interview at his Manteo office. “I told him I was an Independent, but my family had been Democrats forever.”

Second, he said, he told McCrory that he had not attended college and had no alliance to any team – or for that matter, the rough and tumble of sports.

“I had to tell him I’m not into the sport of politics,” he said. “I’m going to be who I am . . . This is no political launch for me.”

Fearing, 58, succeeds Matt Wood of Camden on the 19-member panel. Previous to Wood, the post was held by Stan White, a Nags Head Democrat, who resigned to fill state Sen. Marc Basnight’s seat, and R.V. Owens, a Manteo businessman. The Board of Transportation, which meets monthly in Raleigh, oversees 14 divisions statewide and works with the state Department of Transportation in prioritizing transportation projects.

Division 1 covers the vast, largely poor and rural northeast corner of the state, encompassing 14 counties: Bertie, Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Hertford, Hyde, Martin, Northampton, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Tyrrell, and Washington.

Since Fearing, president of Outer Banks Insurance Agency, accepted the post in April, he said he has been working overtime to get up to speed on the issues, the budget and the division’s projects and needs.  Nearly three shelves of a bookcase in his office are already lined with large notebooks filled with DOT information.

He grabs one notebook and quickly flips through page after page. That is just lists of the meaning of acronyms and department terminology, he said.

 But he’s able to deftly rattle off the DOT basics:  12,000 staff and a budget that had been “north of $12 billion for a long time” and was about to change. And for Division 1-- there are 5,162 road miles; 575 bridges, including eight of the state’s 10 longest bridges; and “right now, at this second” about $500 million in construction projects underway.

In the next 10 years, about 1.3 million people are expected to move to North Carolina, one of the fastest growing states in the Union. Fearing cited a $1.2 million deficit in the transportation budget. Nearly 60 percent of the revenue comes from the fuel tax he said, and the efficiency of vehicles has made the tax a declining source.

A new transportation plan, known as the Strategic Mobility Formula, prioritizes projects based on criteria that rank factors such as travel time savings, traffic congestion and safety, according to the NCDOT website.  It will be fully implemented in 2015.

Projects are divided into state, regional and division levels, with those bearing statewide importance receiving 40 percent of revenue, totaling $6 billion over 10 years. Regional projects will receive 30 percent, equaling $4.5 billion, weighted by population; and division projects will receive 30 percent, or $4.5 billion divided equally between the 14 divisions.

The regions will have subsets of a Rural Planning Organization or a Metropolitan Planning Organization, known in bureaucrat-speak as RPO and MPO.

The selection of projects will be data-driven and include input from local division engineers and local leaders, and it’s supposed to be immune to politics. Although the plan has garnered broad bi-partisan support, Fearing said, it’s complicated to figure out the end result. 

Even a top DOT numbers guy -- a man Fearing compared to Dave Clawson, Dare County’s award winning finance director -- could not tell him what the specific effect of the plan would be on Division 1.

“Is there going to be an effect? Yes,” Fearing said. “But that effect is going to be across the entire state. We really won’t know until 2015.”

Division 1 will be combined with adjacent Division 4 to create Region A, which will have input from RPOs known as Albemarle, Mid-East, and Peanut.

The Board is expected to approve recommendations on project criteria and weights this month.

The perception that Division 1 will get pennies to Raleigh’s dollars because of lingering resentment for once all-powerful state Sen. Marc Basnight, a Manteo Democrat -- or because it is rural and lacks political muscle -- is groundless, Fearing said.

If the board has a chip on its shoulder against Basnight’s territory, Fearing said he has yet to see it. He said he was allowed to give a presentation about the division that exceeded his allotted time, and everyone has been welcoming and accommodating towards him.

“They were kind to me,” he said. “They let me go on. They let me tell the story from the inlet shoaling to Highway 64 to (U.S.) 158. They indulged me for 15- to 18-minutes.”

Fearing said he has no interest in any politics that may be associated with the board.
“Roads and bridges are not for Democrats or Republicans,” he said.

Division 1, he said, is about the size of New Jersey and is home to about 250,000 people. Despite how spread out and, compared to the rest of the state, how sparsely populated it is, the board has not been dismissive of the importance of projects such as the Mid-Currituck Bridge.

“I see support,” he said, referring to bridge between Corolla and the Currituck mainland.
“I see awareness amongst our board. I’ve been assured all the way to our Secretary that it will compete in our state.”

Fearing is also wearing his advocate’s hat for the Bonner Bridge, a project he called critical to Hatteras Island. 

“We’re going to build the bridge,” he said. “The department is committed to build the bridge.”

Fearing seems to have advocacy in his bones. His father M. Keith Fearing Jr. had served in the state House of Representatives, helping to pass the legislation that created the “Beach Plan” coastal insurance program.

As a young man, Malcolm Fearing had quit school to start a fishing and hunting guide business, a decision he regrets, Although he eventually did graduate, the experience made him appreciate the value of education, inspiring him to help other “knuckleheads like me” get through school.

A photograph on his wall shows him at age 18 with long blonde hair, when he was working on a sailboat. In another, his great-uncle, state Sen. Bradford Fearing, is standing next to Paul Green, the playwright who penned the “The Lost Colony.”

Trophy animals – Fearing is a big bow hunter –fill almost an entire wall.

Before new schools were built in Dare County, he spent nearly nine years advocating for renovation of the schools “from one end of the county to another,” he said.

Fearing, who is married and has three children and four grandchildren, has also contributed his opinion, often for prolonged periods, about numerous issues having to do with the county, the town of Manteo, and Roanoke Island Festival Park, among others.

He has a thinly veiled, but well-known, rivalry with former town Mayor John Wilson, a member of another old Manteo family. At the public meetings he attends, he speaks in a polite, but direct manner.

Much of his business in recent years has been repurposing old buildings – moving oceanfront cottages or abandoned houses, fixing them up and selling them.

“When people ask me what I do, I tell them I do maintenance work,” he said.

Fearing jokes that he likes the saying “I’d rather be lucky than good,” but he is taking his role with the DOT seriously.  He’s up at 4:30 a.m. answering e-mails from people.

He is trying not to pay attention to the political division in the state and doing what he can to help people. He said he plans to serve just one term.

“The majority of the people are caught in the middle,” he said. “When people ask me something, I’m going to try to address their concerns.

“It doesn’t mean I can get anything done. But I’m going to try.”




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