Urban legislators from both parties are teaming up in a bid to repeal a new provision in state law, enacted last week, that bars the state Department of Transportation from contributing more than $500,000 to any light-rail project.
The limit, a late addition to the budget law, cancels DOT’s commitment to provide $138 million for the planned $1.5 billion Durham-Orange light-rail line. Critics, including Gov. Pat McCrory, said the measure undermined the spirit of the 2013 Strategic Transportation Investments law, designed to remove politics from decisions about where to spend transportation money.
“I’m not a big supporter of light rail,” Rep. Bill Brawley, a Mecklenburg County Republican, said Wednesday. “But what I am a big supporter of is to have a process to assign projects based on the ability of engineers to calculate the benefits – rather than the ability of powerful legislators to get enough votes to spend the money in their district.”
Durham and Orange county voters endorsed light rail when they levied a local half-cent sales tax to help pay for it, said Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat.
“There are plenty of us who feel that urban areas should be able to make their own judgments about public transit, and it shouldn’t be dictated by the state,” Luebke said. “There’s a real effort going on by urban legislators from Durham, Orange, Wake and Mecklenburg counties to revive the light-rail funding, and I would say we have a good chance.”
Luebke and Brawley said the effort to repeal the $500,000 limit on light-rail funds includes Rep. Paul Stam, a Wake County Republican, who has said that the state should not spend money on light rail. Stam could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
I am a big supporter of ... a process to assign projects based on the ability of engineers to calculate the benefits – rather than the ability of powerful legislators to get enough votes to spend the money in their district.
Rep. Bill Brawley, Mecklenburg County Republican
Stam has agreed to offer an amendment on the House floor Monday night to Senate Bill 605, which makes changes to several revenue laws, Brawley said.
Wake County funds targeted
Stam defeated a separate light-rail provision in the same bill Wednesday in the House Finance Committee. The measure would have barred Wake County from receiving any light-rail money – including the maximum $500,000 otherwise allowed under the new state law – if Wake voters joined Orange and Durham counties in approving a local sales tax for transit improvements.
The Wake County commissioners are considering options that might include a variety of rail transit called diesel multiple units, different from light rail. Stam says he prefers buses to trains, but he argued that it would be wrong for the state to penalize Wake voters.
“There’s no reason to say that you shouldn’t spend state funds on a project just because the local people tax themselves to support the same project,” Stam told Finance Committee members. They supported his amendment to kill the Wake light-rail ban.
Brawley was one of the legislative architects of the Strategic Transportation Investments law, which lets highway and transit projects compete for state funds according to objective measures of project benefits.
The Durham-Orange light-rail line, 17 miles from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke University and downtown Durham, won $138 million to be spent over the next decade.
GoTriangle, the regional planning agency overseeing the light-rail project, is hoping for federal funds to cover half the cost, with the remaining half divided between state and local funds.
“We continue to support efforts to remove the $500,000 restriction on state funding for light rail,” Jeff Mann, GoTriangle’s general manager, said Wednesday.
GoTriangle trustees authorized Mann on Wednesday to hire 12 new employees to do environmental, real estate, planning and engineering work for the light-rail project.
North Carolina’s first two light-rail lines, in Charlotte, have relied on state DOT money to cover 25 percent of project costs. The state is expected to spend about $400 million for the Blue Line, which opened in South Charlotte in 2007, and the Blue Line Extension to UNC Charlotte, now under construction. Because of when the second project won state funding, it is not subject to the new $500,000 limit.
Reporter Taylor Knopf contributed.
Light rail public hearings
GoTriangle has scheduled two hearings next week to receive public comment on the planned 17-mile Durham-Orange light-rail line:
▪ Tuesday, Sept. 29, 4-7 p.m., Friday Center, 100 Friday Center Drive, Chapel Hill
▪ Thursday, Oct. 1, 4-7 p.m., Durham County Commissioners’ Chamber, 200 E. Main St., Durham