GOP bid to turn down rail funds falls short

Staff writersApril 10, 2011 

— A Republican push to reject $461 million in federal railroad improvement grants for North Carolina appears to have collapsed.

Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger said Saturday that he didn't think the project could be stopped. Berger's statement came a day after Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Matthews, said GOP leaders have agreed they should accept the money.

The bill to kill high-speed rail sponsored by Rep. Ric Killian of Charlotte was pulled Friday from the agenda of the House Transportation Committee, which had been scheduled to vote on the measure this week. Killian's bill was attacked in a committee meeting last week by Democrats, business advocates and big-city mayors.

Efforts to reach Killian on Saturday were unsuccessful.

Rep. Frank Iler, chairman of the transportation committee, said the bill had been pulled at Killian's request.

"He said he needed a little more time on it," said Iler, an Oak Island Republican. "There's been some controversy."

Even if Killian's bill were to win approval in the House, there does not appear to be enough support among Republicans in the state Senate to send it to the desk of Gov. Bev Perdue, much less override a likely veto from the Democrat.

Berger said in a statement his office released Saturday that legislators should have been consulted before the N.C. Department of Transportation agreed to accept high-speed and intercity passenger rail grants from the Obama administration totaling $545 million.

However, Berger added that it appears to him that DOT had the legal authority to accept the money; the first $59 million was committed late last year and is already being spent to improve the rail corridor between Raleigh and Charlotte.

"The Senate Republican Caucus has not made any formal decision regarding legislative efforts to reject this rail money," Berger, a Republican from Eden, said in the statement. "I personally do not think the legislature will be able to unwind this transaction."

Rejected funds

Nationwide, the Obama administration has committed $10.5 billion to high-speed rail projects and wants to spend $53 billion on such projects in the next several years. But those plans have met resistance from many Republicans, who say the plans for improved mass transit are too costly and unlikely to attract enough riders to be self-sustaining.

The House voted in February to eliminate the president's high-speed rail funding, though the Democratic-controlled Senate did not concur. Newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida have all said their states will reject their share of the federal rail funds.

But even as a handful of states have spurned the money, leaders in two dozen others have stepped forward to ask for some of the billions put back on the table.

Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Matthews, said at a Charlotte business meeting Friday that GOP leaders agreed North Carolina should accept the rail money.

"We'll support the $545 million," Rucho said.

North Carolina's costs

The Obama administration has committed $520 million of the money to North Carolina, and negotiations are under way for the remaining $25 million grant announced last year. The money comes without requirement for any matching state funds for capital improvement, but the state is committed to pay maintenance and operation costs.

North Carolina secured $461 million in federal stimulus grants last month after fighting off efforts by Norfolk Southern Railway to extract new concessions in exchange for its support on a related rail operation agreement.

In addition to making higher speeds possible for trains running between the state's two largest cities by straightening curves and improving road crossings, the money would also go to upgrade stations and begin work on a faster route between Raleigh and Richmond, Va.

Supporters of the improved rail service also say the project will help the state's sagging economy by directly creating an estimated 4,800 jobs and spurring the creation of thousands more down the line.

Chrissy Pearson, a spokeswoman for Perdue, said the governor is pleased the state's Republican leadership is coming around to her way of thinking on high-speed rail.

"The governor felt all along that we should accept that money, improve our rail system and put people back to work," Pearson said Saturday.

michael.biesecker@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4698

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