State Politics

Legislature looks to drop light rail funding cap that’s harming Orange-Durham project

A concept illustration of a Durham-Orange Light Rail train at a station in downtown Durham near Durham Street.
A concept illustration of a Durham-Orange Light Rail train at a station in downtown Durham near Durham Street.

House lawmakers want to remove a cap on light rail funding that has harmed plans for a Durham-Chapel Hill light rail project.

The $500,000 cap enacted last year would be dropped under the House transportation budget that received initial approval from a subcommittee Thursday. The budget plan would also eliminate ferry tolls and launch a study of trucker parking options along highways – a response to truckers getting ticketed for parking and sleeping next to exit ramps when truck stops are full.

The light rail cap was a surprise provision added to last year’s budget. It prompted concerns from urban legislators in both parties and canceled the state’s commitment to provide $138 million for the planned $1.5 billion Durham-Orange light-rail line.

The 17-mile rail line would be anchored by UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, and in Durham by the Duke and VA medical centers and the downtown core.

Rep. Paul Tine, who co-chairs the Transportation Appropriations Committee, said removing the cap allows DOT to fund projects based on an objective ranking system.

“We wanted to make sure that we continue to list all the options in the state in transportation,” he said. “They (backers of the Orange-Durham project) still have to go through all the process to make sure they can do one of those projects, but it doesn’t take it off the table from a legislative perspective.”

Rep. Grier Martin, a Raleigh Democrat, praised the decision to remove the cap. “It helps districts like mine and districts adjacent to mine,” he said.

In the Senate, Durham Democratic Sen. Floyd McKissick filed a separate bill this week to eliminate the light rail cap. “I think we’re very supportive” of the proposal, said Republican Sen. Bill Rabon of Southport, one of the chamber’s lead transportation budget writers.

Ferry tolls

House legislators are making another push in their budget to eliminate tolls on state-run ferries. Senate leaders have been less willing to drop the tolls in previous budget cycles.

“We’ve been working with the Senate during the interim to see if we can come to an agreeable spot,” Tine said. “We’re not there yet, but I’m hopeful that we can get there.”

Rabon said Senate budget writers are considering the proposal but said it would be “premature” to say whether they’ll support it.

While some coastal ferry routes are free, others include tolls ranging from $3 to $45. Coastal leaders have argued that the routes should be treated like roads because some riders use them for daily commutes.

“Ferries are the only part of our transportation system that’s being treated differently,” said Tine, an unaffiliated legislator from Kitty Hawk. “What this does is create consistency. ... Oftentimes, we say these are floating bridges.”

The state collects about $1.8 million annually in tolls, but collecting the tolls costs up to $600,000, Tine said. The House budget includes $13.8 million for the ferry system, fully funding it without tolls.

Trucker parking

The House budget also calls for a study in response to complaints that the state has been aggressively ticketing truckers who park alongside freeway exit ramps to sleep. Truckers, particularly those traveling Interstate 77, say they have little choice when private truck stops are full and they’ve hit the maximum number of hours behind the wheel.

The crackdown by the state Highway Patrol was prompted in part by complaints from Charlie Shelton, a donor to Gov. Pat McCrory who owns a winery near I-77.

The budget bill calls for the Department of Transportation to “study ways to provide additional off-highway parking and rest areas,” including opening up abandoned rest stops as safe place for truckers to park. The study report would be due to legislators by next February.

“It’s safety for our drivers, it’s safety for the public,” Tine said. “If we have the available resources to safely provide those spaces, I think we should take a look at it.”

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter

House budget

Other items approved by budget panels Thursday would:

▪ Eliminate vehicle emission inspections in 31 counties, with additional gradual decreases over several years. Wake, Durham and Mecklenburg are among the counties that would no longer require those inspections. Newer vehicles would not have to be inspected.

▪ Delay the N.C. Guaranteed Admission Program (NCGAP) by one year. The program diverting some students admitted to UNC schools to community colleges for two years was to begin this year. UNC officials want a delay.

▪ Hire literacy coaches for low-performing elementary schools, using money that would have been used to hire more first-grade teachers to reduce class size.

▪ Spend $750,000 on Zika virus prevention efforts.

▪ Use $25 million in proceeds from selling the Dorothea Dix hospital property to the city of Raleigh to improve mental health care in rural hospitals.

▪ Launch a three-year pilot program to address a growing opioid addiction problem.

▪ Budget $300,000 for a pilot program to address “food deserts,” putting local fresh fruit and vegetables in convenience stores in areas that have few grocery stores.

▪ Suspend the State Bureau of Investigation’s Air Wing if the state fails to purchase a new plane to replace one that has fallen into disrepair.

Staff writers Lynn Bonner, Craig Jarvis, Colin Campbell and Dan Boylan