A sentence in the proposed state budget could make all future light rail in Charlotte 'impossible'

A  LYNX light-rail train travels along South Boulevard in Charlotte.
A LYNX light-rail train travels along South Boulevard in Charlotte. Observer File Photo

Tucked deep inside a revised state budget released Monday is a one-sentence paragraph that could effectively kill future light rail projects in Charlotte and across the state.

Section 34.7(a) - on page 179 of the 267-page budget - reads: "Additional Requirement for High-Cost Projects. – A light rail project is ineligible for scoring, prioritization, and State funding until a written agreement is provided to the Department establishing that all non-State funding necessary to construct the project has been secured."

In plainer English, that means cities and counties that want state funding for light rail must first secure all other funding — including federal — before the state will consider contributing. Problem is, the federal grant program that helps pay for light rail projects requires that municipalities have their local and state funding squared away.

The result: N.C. Republicans who drew up the budget are effectively — and intentionally — sabotaging the process.

"It's a chicken-and-egg thing," former Charlotte mayor and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx told the Observer editorial board Tuesday. "It's impossible to get federal funding if the local funding package is incomplete."

If the budget provision is approved, N.C. projects like the $3.3 billion Durham-Orange light rail — which was set to begin construction in 2020 — would lose at least half its funding. Future light rail projects in Charlotte, including a proposed Silver Line running east of uptown and a much-discussed rapid transit line through west Charlotte to the airport, would be the longest of long shots.

Such projects not only create thousands of good jobs and help revitalize neighborhoods along their routes, they also attract companies and workers that want to move to forward-thinking cities with alternative transportation options. In Raleigh, which is one of the finalists for Amazon's second headquarters, there's already some justifiable fretting about how the company might perceive the sabotage of the Durham-Orange project.

All of which is sadly fertile political ground for Republican lawmakers who want to divide the state.

"It's baiting the sort of urban-rural political divide that has unfortunately gripped North Carolina and the whole country," Foxx told the editorial board. "It's this feeling that light rail is for tree-hugging liberals in cities. Roads are for bread-and-butter Republicans in rural areas."

The truth, Foxx says, is that North Carolina needs both good roads and good alternatives. We agree. The light rail budget item is cynical and shortsighted. It's bad for all of North Carolina, including the cities that make up the state's economic engine. Republicans should remove it before the budget gets a vote.