Politics & Government

GOP legislators defend budget’s light-rail killer

Artist's concept of a Durham-Orange Light Rail train at a station in downtown Durham.
Artist's concept of a Durham-Orange Light Rail train at a station in downtown Durham. Raleigh

State Rep. Paul Stam was pleased to discover a provision that House and Senate negotiators had inserted in the state budget – four lines that probably will kill prospects for light rail transit in Orange and Durham counties.

“Light rail is sort of a dinosaur of the 20th century or the 19th century,” Stam, an Apex Republican who is the dean of Wake County’s legislative delegation, said last week. “If the cities want to do it, fine. But the state shouldn’t chip in on it.”

Our Republican-led legislature already had taken steps to limit state spending for transit projects. The Strategic Transportation Investments law adopted two years ago allowed the 17-mile Durham-Orange project to compete directly with highways and bridges for state money but under a complicated formula that limits transit to a 10 percent share of state spending in the region.

Supporters say the $1.5 billion light-rail project proved its merit as a cost-effective investment of public funds under the even-handed, objective criteria established in the 2013 law. So in the new State Transportation Improvement Program, the Department of Transportation allocated $138 million over the next 10 years.

It was all the money allowed under that 10 percent regional cap for transit – a significant expenditure, to be sure, but less than 10 percent of the project cost. Less, also, than the 25 percent share the state kicked in for Charlotte’s first light-rail line and was scheduled to contribute to Charlotte’s second line.

Naturally, Triangle leaders have been counting on a 25 percent share for the Durham-Orange project, too.

Now, under the budget compromise worked out by House and Senate leaders, adopted by both chambers and signed by Gov. Pat McCrory last week, the 2013 STI law has been rewritten to say that the state will not spend more than $500,000 on any light rail project. DOT will amend that 10-year plan to erase that $138 million, or at least $137.5 million of it.

Public transit in North Carolina has had few greater champions than McCrory. As Charlotte’s Republican mayor, he helped develop his city’s transit plan and lobbied the legislature to let Mecklenburg County and Triangle voters tax themselves to help pay for transit.

My biggest concern, regardless of your feelings on light rail or heavy rail, is that I don’t want to politicize the whole transportation process.

Gov. Pat McCrory

One of his signature accomplishments as governor was the passage of the STI law, designed to take politics out of the decisions about our transportation spending priorities. Now with that anti-light-rail provision, he says, politics is worming its way back into the 2013 law.

‘A huge mistake’

“Once you start amending that, as this (budget) bill does, then I think you’re endangering the goal that we have in this administration of doing roads and rails based on data, not politics,” McCrory told Time Warner Cable News last week. “My biggest concern, regardless of your feelings on light rail or heavy rail, is that I don’t want to politicize the whole transportation process.”

He called the light-rail killer “a huge mistake.” Whoever inserted it into the state budget should “have the courage to speak up and say, yeah, I did this behind closed doors,” McCrory said.

So far, no courage.

“Everybody seems to be saying that it was somebody else,” said Sen. Mike Woodard, a Durham Democrat.

Stam says he doesn’t know who added the light-rail measure to the budget. Sen. Bill Rabon, a Southport Republican and one of his chamber’s transportation spending bosses, says the same thing.

But, like Stam, Rabon thinks it was a great idea.

I think it’s the best transportation budget in our lifetime. I’m sure that Orange and Durham counties don’t think so.

Sen. Bill Rabon, Southport Republican

“We thought we could put that money to better use on roads and bridges,” Rabon said. “The locals can use their sales taxes and use a bond if they would like. Light rail doesn’t serve the whole state. It serves a locale.”

Sen. Floyd McKissick, Jr., a Durham Democrat, echoes McCrory’s lament about politics distorting the state’s transportation decisions.

The new $500,000 limit on state funding “leaves a profound deficit that cannot be filled from other sources” for the Durham-Orange light-rail line, McKissick said. “It kills the project unless it can be undone.”

Rabon is pleased with other transportation priorities advanced in the new budget. The state has focused spending on legislative goals to reduce the number of structurally deficient bridges and to insure that all roads are resurfaced every 12 to 15 years.

“And every little bit of money we can find to do it helps,” Rabon said. “I think it’s the best transportation budget in our lifetime. I’m sure that Orange and Durham counties don’t think so.”

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