RALEIGH — As mayors and legislators debated a bill Tuesday that would send $461 million in federal railroad improvement grants back to Washington, the state Department of Transportation asked Washington for $624 million more.
In the new request, North Carolina seeks a share of $2.4 billion in high-speed rail grants recently spurned by the governor of Florida.
DOT would use the money to make rail improvements between Charlotte and Raleigh; replace old stations in both cities and build new ones in Hillsborough and Lexington; and do advance work on a 35-mile Raleigh-to-Richmond shortcut to serve trains at speeds up to 110 mph.
Anthony Foxx of Charlotte was one of three mayors who appeared before the House Transportation Committee to endorse the rail program, and to oppose a House bill that would kill it. Foxx noted that several committee witnesses, including Durham Mayor Bill Bell, had been delayed by a rush-hour wreck that stopped traffic on Interstate 40 near Research Triangle Park.
"This morning I actually took the train from Charlotte to Raleigh, and it took longer than it would have taken in a car - although it took a shorter amount of time than it took Mayor Bell to get here from Durham," Foxx said. "And so that speaks to both the benefits and the opportunities of rail."
GOP, Democrats split
Three Republican sponsors of the anti-rail bill complained that DOT had not consulted the legislature before accepting the federal rail grants last month, and had not explained how much it would cost the state in future years to maintain the new tracks and other facilities.
But two Democrats on the committee said the high-speed rail plans had been discussed at length and endorsed in two votes by a special House-Senate rail committee, and by the full House.
"Those projects weren't just invented in the last two months," said Rep. Ray Rapp of Mars Hill. "They were discussed, they were endorsed, and they were moved forward."
He said the state would suffer if the legislature stalled or eliminated the federal rail funds.
"I think it truly is foolhardy that we are spending a lot of time even having this kind of discussion," Rapp said. "I think this is where ideology is trumping common sense. This money that is coming down, with no match required, is going to make safer, more efficient transportation for both freight and passengers."
Bell: It will make jobs
Bell promoted the rail program as "a job-creation project," citing DOT's projection for 4,800 engineering and construction jobs.
"In the first five years, North Carolina will spend approximately $15 million," Bell said. "How often do we have the opportunity to create jobs in North Carolina for as little a state investment as this requires?"
Rep. Ric Killian of Charlotte, the bill's chief sponsor, has said he wants to kill North Carolina's high-speed rail program. He argued again Tuesday that it would hurt freight service, weaken the state-owned N.C. Railroad and undermine the state's economic development prospects.
But two other sponsors, Reps. Phil Shepard of Jacksonville and Phillip Frye of Spruce Pine, said they only wanted to give the legislature the power to approve or veto the federally funded rail improvements. Although the grants are available only for rail, the sponsors said they were more concerned about other transportation needs.
"Before we obligate on high-speed rail, I want to see what we are going to do about these bridges that need to be replaced," Shepard said.
All of the eight speakers who appeared before the committee opposed the bill. The transportation committee is expected to vote on it after more discussion at a meeting next week.
DOT's new funding request was a repackaged version of previous bids for part of the $8 billion in federal stimulus funds and $2.5 billion in other high-speed rail money approved by Congress during the past two years.
While the state has won a total of $545 million in grants that cover 100 percent of project costs, money sought in the new application would require matching money from state and local sources.
Depending on how the federal government rules on North Carolina's bid for $624 million, DOT would ask the legislature and local governments to come up with somewhere between $9.6 million and $159 million in matching funds, the department said in its grant request Tuesday.
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