State Politics

NC Senate budget jeopardizes Durham-Chapel Hill light rail

A rendering of what the planned Orange-Durham light rail line will look like.
A rendering of what the planned Orange-Durham light rail line will look like.

A planned light rail line connecting Durham and Chapel Hill could be delayed and lose funding under a budget provision approved by the state Senate this week.

Both the House and Senate budgets would eliminate one obstacle: a $500,000 cap on state funding for light rail projects. The legislature put the cap in last year’s budget, not long after state transportation officials committed $138 million for the project.

But while eliminating the current cap, the Senate budget provision would also add new restrictions: Each commuter rail or light rail project couldn’t receive more than 10 percent of its total funding from the state. And the Durham-Chapel Hill project wouldn’t automatically get funding – it would have to wait two years and go through the Department of Transportation’s prioritization process again.

“It lifted the cap but set a cap,” said Sen. Wesley Meredith, a Fayetteville Republican and a Senate transportation budget writer. Meredith said he didn’t know the rationale for the new cap; he said the provision was developed by Sen. Bill Rabon of Southport and Sen. Kathy Harrington of Gastonia.

Rabon did not respond to requests for comment, and Harrington’s assistant said she was unavailable Friday to discuss the provision.

GoTriangle, the regional transit agency overseeing the Durham-Chapel Hill project, called on legislators Friday to change the provision and allow the light rail line to move forward. House and Senate leaders will negotiate a compromise budget in the coming weeks.

“We appreciate efforts to remove the light rail cap, and we are optimistic that the remaining budget language will be adjusted to ... allow us to continue securing the federal funding needed to deliver projects that will help relieve congestion and better connect people to jobs, education, healthcare and other services,” GoTriangle general manager Jeff Mann said in a news release.

The light rail cap wasn’t mentioned during Thursday’s Senate budget debate, and no senators sought to amend the provision.

The funding plan for the light rail line anticipates that the state will ultimately cover 25 percent of the estimated $1.5 billion cost, although the current state allocation represents about 9 percent of that total. Local governments – through a half-cent sales tax for transit – are intended to pay for 25 percent, with federal grants covering the remaining 50 percent.

Charlotte used a similar funding formula to build its light rail system.

GoTriangle plans to award contracts to start design planning soon. That work must be completed before the agency applies for federal grants. The grants also require GoTriangle to show that the project’s other funding sources are secure.

Under the current schedule, the agency could apply for federal funding and begin construction in 2019. “Any further delay beyond that could put federal funding at risk,” GoTriangle spokesman Mike Charbonneau said.

House leaders appear more willing than their Senate counterparts to remove restrictions on light rail funding.

Rep. Paul Tine, who co-chairs the Transportation Appropriations Committee, has said he supports DOT using an objective ranking system for public transit proposals.

“We wanted to make sure that we continue to list all the options in the state in transportation,” he said last month.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell, who chairs GoTriangle’s board, stressed the need to keep all transportation options on the table.

“Additional road widening alone is not a viable option to reduce current congestion and plan ahead for the rapid growth, which also brings new economic and job opportunities,” he said.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter