GOP bill would halt fast rail

House Republicans say the state should reject federal money for high-speed trains between Raleigh and Charlotte.

Staff WriterMarch 23, 2011 

— As the state Department of Transportation gears up to spend $461 million in federal grants for beefed-up train service from Raleigh to Charlotte, some Republican legislators say North Carolina should send the money back to Washington instead.

Rep. Ric Killian of Charlotte warned Tuesday that new passenger trains will hurt the state-owned N.C. Railroad and might saddle taxpayers unfairly with operation and maintenance costs.

"I just don't think we should be creating another unsustainable system for the citizens of North Carolina to bear the financial burden on," Killian said in an interview in his Legislative Building office.

A bill filed by Killian and six more House Republicans would have North Carolina follow the lead of GOP governors in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida, who killed rail projects and spurned $3.6 billion in grants from the Democratic administration of President Barack Obama.

The North Carolina legislation would bar DOT from spending the new high-speed rail money or seeking more.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, rejected the GOP proposal and said the federal funds would boost North Carolina's economic development.

"This is money coming into the state that allows us to improve the rail system in a way we would not have been able to do on our own," said Chrissy Pearson, Perdue's communication director. "It will make the state more attractive to business. This money from the feds points directly toward putting people back to work."

Ray LaHood, the U.S. transportation secretary, announced Tuesday that an agreement signed Monday between the state DOT and three railroads cleared the way for North Carolina to start spending money to add double tracks between Charlotte and Greensboro, to build passing siding tracks between Greensboro and Raleigh, to buy trains and to erect bridges.

"These grants will improve passenger rail service in North Carolina, while preserving the world-class freight rail system we have today," LaHood said in a news release.

But Killian said the rail project will weaken freight service on the state-owned N.C. Railroad.

"The N.C. Railroad has a very limited capacity, and my preference would be for that capacity to be allotted toward freight, not passenger rail," Killian said. He said the project would hurt the value of the N.C. Railroad, and referred a reporter to the railroad's president, Scott Saylor, for details.

Creating jobs

Saylor is scheduled today to appear before a committee, co-chaired by Killian, that oversees transportation spending. The planned double track, Saylor said, will relieve a busy rail traffic bottleneck, making it easier for freight and passenger trains to pass slower trains between Greensboro and Charlotte.

"The goal is to ensure that neither freight nor passenger trains run at the expense of the other," Saylor said.

With the $461 million and an earlier payment of $59 million, DOT now has gotten its hands on all but $25 million of the total $545 million in high-speed grants pledged to North Carolina by the Obama administration in January 2010.

The stimulus grants pay 100 percent of project costs, with no requirement for matching capital funds from the state. DOT said the work will create about 4,800 jobs.

Killian did not provide details to explain his worry that North Carolina would face added expenses for maintenance and operations. He said DOT officials had mentioned a possible figure of $50 million, but he wasn't sure what that covered.

Ted Vaden, a DOT deputy secretary, said Perdue's proposed budget includes $4.5 million a year for maintenance of existing and planned rail service.

Fares collected from passengers on DOT-sponsored trains covered 79 percent of the state's $23.8 million payment to Amtrak last year, and the state covered the rest, Vaden said. DOT planning documents include projections that passenger fares eventually will cover 100 percent of operating costs - if DOT wins full funding to complete its proposed Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor from Charlotte to Washington, D.C.

Worries about small towns

Killian said he also is concerned about safety hazards and economic damage in the small towns that won't have stations for trains that are expected eventually to run as fast as 90 mph.

"If you've got a high-speed rail line that burns through there without stopping, it's going to negatively affect those communities and split those communities," Killian said.

He said he had not heard expressions of concern from any specific community.

Killian and Rep. Phillip Frye of Spruce Pine sponsored the bill to kill North Carolina's high-speed rail program, with five other Republicans signed on as sponsors and co-sponsors.

A spokesman for the Republican House speaker, Rep. Thom Tillis of Charlotte, said Tillis has not taken a position on the proposal to kill the rail program.

The Republican Senate leader was noncommittal and said he wants to know more about whether DOT officials commit North Carolina to unusual, long-term financial obligations.

"I think we need that kind of information," said Sen. Phil Berger of Eden, the Senate president pro tempore. "Beyond that, I'm not prepared to say we ought to turn the money down. I would think any improvements in the N.C. Railroad corridor would ... benefit the people of North Carolina."

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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