Road Worrier

House member still smarting from rail remark

Staff WriterApril 26, 2011 

In the midst of a contentious committee debate last week, Charlotte Rep. Ric Killian paused to correct the record from a previous meeting.

He wanted to un-tell a joke.

A clever remark had made Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx the star of an April 5 House Transportation Committee session. Foxx rode the Amtrak Carolinian to Raleigh to denounce legislation, pushed by Killian, that would have forced North Carolina to give up $461 million in federal grants for a big rail upgrade between the two cities.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell, another train booster, arrived late to the April 5 meeting. He'd been caught in the backup caused by a spectacular crash that slowed Interstate 40 for several hours.

The room filled with laughter when Foxx quipped that his three-hour train trip from Charlotte was faster, that day, than Bell's short drive from Durham. It was an exaggeration - Bell says the I-40 slowdown doubled his usual 30-minute drive time. But it scored points for rail backers in their push for an alternative to car-clogged roads.

Killian's kill bill died that day. He was smarting from the memory last week.

"There was a joke made during the meeting we had a couple of weeks ago about how Mayor Foxx came here on the train," Killian recalled Tuesday.

"What he didn't tell you is how he got home that day. And I'll tell you, it wasn't on the train."

The Charlotte Republican began to explain that Bell's I-40 delay had come in the wake of bad weather and power outages, but he was cut short. The committee chairman, GOP Rep. Frank Iler of Oak Island, ruled that he had strayed too far from the legislation under discussion.

Later, queried by the Road Worrier, Killian wouldn't say how Foxx had returned to Charlotte. "You'll have to ask Mayor Foxx," he said.

A spokeswoman said Foxx, a Democrat, carpooled home to Charlotte with someone else who was in Raleigh that day. The Amtrak Piedmont would not have returned him to Charlotte in time for a speaking engagement that evening.

Killian is a real estate investor and third-term Republican. He is spearheading the first significant opposition to the state Department of Transportation's efforts, under Democrat Gov. Bev Perdue, to improve passenger train service with federal high-speed rail money.

His chief antagonist is Rep. Ray Rapp, a retired college administrator and fifth-term Democrat from Mars Hill. Rapp and other pro-rail Democrats won a temporary victory Tuesday when a few Republicans helped them water down Killian's fall-back strategy to give the legislature veto power over future rail grants.

Rapp needled Killian in a series of exchanges during several meetings last week. He complained that Killian sought to micro-manage a program that supported train travel for 800,000 North Carolinians last year.

"Rail is being singled out," Rapp said Wednesday. "We haven't made the same provision where we spend the most money, and that's highways. I want to know why rail, particularly, which is a small piece of this budget, is being targeted. It's almost like a vendetta."

Killian replied that rail spending does nothing to improve safety or relieve congestion. The legislature must step in to make sure that future funds are not wasted, he said.

"And we decide whether or not it's appropriate to continue to spend millions of dollars every year - in either state matching grants or maintenance and operations - for a train ride, a joy ride," Killian said.

This time, Killian had the last laugh.

As co-chairman of a House budget subcommittee, he succeeded Wednesday in advancing a budget provision that would give the legislature new power to block federal rail grants in the future.

That could include an additional $624 million now sought by DOT to add trains, tracks and depots, build a new Amtrak station in Charlotte, and continue work on a new line to Richmond that would cut two hours from travel times north of Raleigh.

GOP legislative leaders have expressed support for closer scrutiny of DOT rail plans, and some version of Killian's measure is expected to be included when the budget is voted on by the House next week and by the Senate later this spring.

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