Taking politics out of transportation – again

The Observer editorial board

Lawmakers essentially killed future light-rail projects in North Carolina last year.
Lawmakers essentially killed future light-rail projects in North Carolina last year. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

Jaw-dropping news: Republicans and Democrats in the legislature are teaming up to work together. And not on just an empty resolution, but on an important and controversial issue.

The N.C. House Transportation Committee on Tuesday will take up HB 988, which would repeal a law passed last year that brought politics back into transportation funding – and essentially killed light-rail in North Carolina. The bill’s primary sponsors are two Republicans and an unaffiliated member. The 30 co-sponsors comprise 23 Democrats and seven Republicans, and they represent urban and rural areas alike.

The legislation would repeal the $500,000-per-light-rail-project cap that snuck into last year’s budget at the last minute. Light rail projects typically require millions of dollars from the state to attract matching federal grants, so the provision threatened to stop projects in their tracks before there were even tracks.

The bigger problem, though, was that the move undercut the state’s shift to basing transportation funding decisions on data, not politics. That data-based approach, adopted in 2013, wisely made congestion, safety and economic development more important in funding decisions than who wielded the most power in N.C. DOT boardrooms.

It also, incidentally, boosted Mecklenburg County and the Charlotte region, where projects have rated higher and received more money than they might have under the old, politics-driven system.

Last year’s measure changed all that. It is still a mystery as to where it came from, but it was not given close scrutiny and by the time many legislators realized it was there, it was too late. That is precisely the kind of politics around transportation funding that the Strategic Transportation Investment program passed in 2013 was supposed to stop.

If the light-rail cap is allowed to stand, what is to stop other legislators from funding or defunding the specific projects they’re targeting? Nothing, and North Carolina will be back to divvying up billions in transportation money in backrooms without adequate consideration for basic factors like congestion.

Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican, is a primary sponsor of the bill to repeal the cap. “With North Carolina’s increasing population we must take a new look at how transport will serve urban areas and how they connect to rural areas,” he told the Insider. “We can’t widen all the streets. We have to consider alternatives.”

Mecklenburg’s Blue Line Extension was not affected by the light-rail cap, and the county doesn’t have any other light-rail projects on the immediate horizon. But other parts of the state do, and Mecklenburg might some day. Those projects should be judged on data, not politics. HB 988’s sponsors – Torbett, Phil Shephard and Paul Tine – deserve credit for trying to make sure they are.