RALEIGH — State transportation secretary Tony Tata spoke out Thursday about his agency’s decision to pull funding from a planned Raleigh train hub, saying the move wasn’t political and that he’s still committed to funding Union Station.
Tata’s comments came hours after the $15.1 million funding shift was reported in The News & Observer. The federal stimulus funding was committed to the project last September, according to an announcement then by Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo.
N.C. Department of Transportation officials planned to use money they anticipated would be left over from a Raleigh-to-Charlotte rail improvement project, but DOT notified Raleigh last week that the rail line will now use the funds. That leaves Raleigh Union Station without a quarter of the $60 million needed for design and construction.
Tata said in a news release Thursday that DOT will still seek funding for the downtown train station, which was scheduled for completion in 2017.
“We have been working closely with the mayor, city manager and city council to find alternative solutions to keep Union Station moving forward,” he said.
Tata blamed the funding confusion on Paul Morris, the former deputy secretary for transit Tata ousted in February shortly after taking office. He said Morris asked the Federal Railroad Administration last year for permission to use funds from the Charlotte rail line project. Federal officials told him the transfer could only happen after the rail line was fully funded, and Tata says it was already over budget.
“Unfortunately in this case, funding was overcommitted by one person against FRA mandate and (DOT) staff recommendations,” Tata said.
Tata points to a Sept. 13 letter Morris received from FRA administrator Paul Nissenbaum before the announcement of the funding a week later. DOT released the letter Thursday, and it notes the reallocation of $15.1 million has federal support – “contingent upon NCDOT demonstrating that sufficient budget is available to complete” the other project.
Morris said Thursday night that DOT and federal officials proved just that before the Sept. 22 announcement that Union Station was fully funded. “Were it not for the full involvement, understanding and support of (then-DOT secretary Gene Conti) and FRA administration, there would have been no commitment made by the NCDOT,” he wrote in an email.
At the announcement, no one mentioned any possibility that the money might be needed elsewhere. “Joe Szabo and I would not have approved having the announcement if we were not sure we could deliver the project,” Conti said Thursday.
Tata’s statement stressed that the about-face at DOT wasn’t politically motivated. “Politics in funding decisions are not acceptable in past or future projects,” he said in the news release.
But Conti fired back at his successor Thursday night: “That press release is extremely unprofessional and inaccurate, and the only one who’s injecting politics into this discussion is Tony Tata.”
Campbell: 919-829-4802 or twitter.com/RaleighReporter