RALEIGH — Members of a House committee lost their chance Tuesday to debate a Republican bill to kill $461 million in federal railroad construction grants. But forces on both sides of the issue continued building arguments about jobs and state spending.
A dozen legislators have signed on to join Rep. Ric Killian of Charlotte, the lead sponsor - including four who, like Killian, are voting against spending tens of millions of dollars on projects in their respective districts.
Killian took up most of the discussion time at a House Transportation Committee meeting, which adjourned before committee members had a chance to speak on his proposal.
But a road-building industry lobbyist was given a few minutes to plead for thousands of jobs that would be financed with stimulus funds for high-speed and intercity rail improvements. The money was committed to North Carolina last week by the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the state DOT is preparing to seek bids on 24 projects.
"We're dealing with 20 percent unemployment in our industry in North Carolina," said Berry Jenkins, an executive with Carolinas Associated General Contractors. He said the federal high-speed rail funds will support 13,000 to 15,000 "direct and indirect" jobs, well more than the 4,800 estimated by the state Department of Transportation.
"We ask that you consider the jobs impact. This is bridge work, this is roadway work. This isn't rocket science. This is stuff our folks do every day, when we have an opportunity," Jenkins said.
But Killian dismissed the jobs issue.
"Folks, what we need are private sector jobs," Killian told the committee. "We do not need publicly financed jobs. Taking federal dollars for temporary jobs in our state, it's not going to solve our economic problems."
Killian argued that freight railroad service would be hurt by projects to double-track the line between Charlotte and Greensboro, to straighten curves, to build bridges to separate cars and trains at crossings, and to put more passenger trains on the line.
"If you create a chokepoint between Charlotte and Raleigh by putting in a high-speed rail line that effectively bisects that right of way in several places, you're not going to have the ability to add freight in the future," Killian said.
DOT chief disagrees
Gene Conti, the state transportation secretary, who had hoped to address the legislators, disputed Killian's arguments in an interview.
"He's missing the whole point," Conti said. Agreements signed by the state will improve the state-owned N.C. Railroad with hundreds of millions of dollars, he said, and terms include a pledge to preserve the rights of Norfolk Southern Railroad, which hauls freight on those tracks.
"In fact, this will help them move freight," Conti said. "We're doubling the capacity from Charlotte to Greensboro. Right now, Norfolk Southern doesn't use the existing capacity. So doubling it, how can that diminish freight capacity?"
Killian's home county, Mecklenburg, would receive a large share of $520 million in federal rail stimulus funds, a total that includes $59 million committed to North Carolina a few months ago. The money would pay for $152 million in Mecklenburg projects.
Among the legislators who have joined Killian as co-sponsors are Rep. Jeff Barnhart of Cabarrus County, which will share a $92 million project with neighboring Mecklenburg; Rep. Rayne Brown of Davidson County, which will receive a $45 million rail project; and Reps. Harry Warren and Fred F. Steen II of Rowan County, which stands to benefit from $99 million in rail spending. Killian's co-sponsors could not be reached for comment.
Mayor Susan Kluttz of Salisbury, the Rowan County seat, came to Raleigh on Tuesday to lobby against Killian's bill. She said she met with Warren and Steen to tell them Salisbury stands to benefit from the high-speed rail improvements.
"We've been preparing for this for 20 years," Kluttz said. "We have closed nine [road-rail] crossings, and we have a significant investment in our beautiful restored train depot. We very much support federal money, particularly during these economic times. We do not want to do anything to harm our efforts to obtain this money, which will make a tremendous difference in Salisbury."
Kluttz is vice chairman of N.C. Metro Mayors, which represents the state's 28 largest cities. The mayors voted recently to endorse North Carolina's bid for an additional $2.4 billion in high-speed funds rejected last month by the governor of Florida.
N.C.'s long-term costs
Killian has said his intention is to kill the federally funded rail program in North Carolina, but his bill would only ban federal rail spending for projects that have not been approved by the legislature.
The federal grants pay for 100 percent of the projects - instead of the 80 percent share that is customary for road construction projects. But Killian said he fears that state officials may have signed commitments to spend too much over the next 25 years for rail operation and maintenance.
Other legislators said this week they'd like to nail down those figures. At Killian's request, DOT officials produced a spreadsheet with projections that operation and maintenance bills would reach $41 million a year by 2037. Killian said the money should be spent on roads instead.
Jim Westmoreland, a deputy DOT secretary, confirmed the $41 million figure in an interview. But he said DOT calculations excluded a revenue source that will shrink the state's rail expense: the fares to be collected from riders on a third daily train between Raleigh and Charlotte, which started running in June, and a fourth train scheduled to start in the next few years.
North Carolina paid Amtrak $23 million last year to operate passenger trains in the state, but passenger fares reimbursed the state for 79 percent of that cost. Westmoreland said he did not have projections for fare collections in 2037.
Conti said it is customary for the state to pay maintenance costs for federally funded road and rail projects.
"Maintenance is part of keeping your investment preserved, so we think that's a very reasonable number," Conti said.
The House Transportation Committee postponed its discussion of the bill until next week.
Killian had not signed up any Triangle legislators as co-sponsors by Tuesday, but local delegation members said they were following the debate carefully.
Republican Sens. Richard Stevens and Neal Hunt of Wake County said they wanted more information about how the state will benefit from the federal rail spending and how much the yearly maintenance cost will be.
"Once we quantify those things, my own feeling is that bill won't go anywhere," Hunt said. "If the numbers come back the way we expect them to, then I'm pretty sure we'll be accepting the federal money."
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