Road Worrier Blog

Legislative leaders squelch light rail, boost roads and bridges

Artist's concept of a Durham-Orange Light Rail train at a station in downtown Durham.
Artist's concept of a Durham-Orange Light Rail train at a station in downtown Durham. Raleigh

The new state budget proposal deals a crippling blow to a planned $1.5 billion light-rail line from Durham to Chapel Hill, with a provision that would put a $500,000 limit on state funding for any light-rail project.

The budget also raises Division of Motor Vehicles fees for the first time in 10 years, provides $700 million more to build and repair roads and bridges, restores state money for driver’s education classes, and eliminates the jobs of 29 specific Department of Transportation employees.

Charlotte launched North Carolina’s first light-rail line eight years ago, with the state covering 25 percent of the construction cost. Triangle leaders have been counting on comparable support when their turn comes.

The prospect of a light-rail cap never came up when House and Senate leaders developed their separate budgets this year. The Republican-led legislature previously had clamped broader restrictions on funding for transit projects.

GoTriangle, the regional transit agency that wants to build the 17-mile Durham-Orange rail line, secured approval for $138 million in state funds this year when the state Board of Transportation approved the 10-year State Transportation Improvement Program.

But prospects for actually getting that money were cast in doubt when House and Senate Republican leaders released their budget Monday night with no explanation for the new cap. Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt called the half-million-dollar cap a “project killer.”

He said local officials and DOT officials have worked hard to develop the light-rail project. Orange and Durham agreed to pay their share with a dedicated half-cent sales tax levied in both counties, he said, and they counted on state funds.

“I don’t understand why this should be politicized,” Kleinschmidt said. “For (legislators) to do this is really quite shocking. It is very disappointing.”

Jeff Mann, GoTriangle’s general manager, said the Durham-Orange line proved its merit when it competed with highway projects for funding under a new program developed by Republican leaders for setting transportation spending priorities.

“The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project scored well in the data-driven process under the Strategic Transportation Investments law, which this (budget) would circumvent,” Mann said. “GoTriangle will continue to seek state funding for the project, which we believe is the best transportation solution for the corridor.”

Leaders in Orange and Durham counties have planned all along to get roughly half the capital cost from the federal government and one-quarter from the state, with the remainder coming from local sales taxes. This week, the Federal Transit Administration gave GoTriangle $1.7 million to support plans for transit-oriented development around the light-rail stations.

Wake County should not be affected by the new light-rail limit. The transit plan under consideration in the capital county includes an option for rail – but it’s not the “light” kind, which runs on electricity. Wake is considering a transit plan that might include heavier trains called diesel multiple units – rail cars powered by individual diesel engines.

The new budget also takes aim at 29 state Department of Transportation employees, whose jobs – listed by their individual position numbers – are identified for elimination.

In addition to firing those workers, DOT is ordered to eliminate another 21 “filled positions that are centrally or regionally based and that perform administrative, managerial, supervisory, or oversight functions.”

It’s a list pared down from an earlier Senate budget proposal to get rid of 56 specific DOT employees. The reduced hit list still includes veteran engineers and two senior managers with salaries above $115,000: Debbie Barbour, who oversees highway design, project development and other services as DOT’s preconstruction director; and Jennifer Brandenburg, who is responsible for highway maintenance and other chores as DOT’s asset management engineer.

Legislative leaders have said the job cuts are related to stepped-up quotas for outsourcing – to let private contractors take over engineering and other jobs now done by DOT employees. But no explanations have been offered for the particular names chosen for elimination.

Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson declined to comment on the transportation budget. Barbour and Brandenburg did not respond to requests for comment.

Elsewhere in the budget, legislators target unfilled positions in other departments for elimination. Twelve employees are marked for transfer to the newly reorganized Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, where they risk having their jobs reclassified or eliminated.

The budget also:

Halts the yearly transfer of $216 million from the Highway Fund to the General Fund. This is gas tax money, generally intended for transportation needs. The change means that DOT will have more money for roads and bridges, and the State Highway Patrol budget will be covered instead by income tax and other General Fund revenues.

This action, one of the biggest revenue shifts in the entire state budget, still leaves about $40 million in gas tax receipts that will continue to be spent for non-DOT needs.

Gives DOT more money to spend in key areas. Over the next two years, the budget will increase spending for construction projects by $337 million, replacement of substandard bridges by $147 million, road resurfacing by $147 million and state ports by $70 million.

Restores state funding for driver’s education at roughly last year’s level, enough to cover most of the cost with students paying a $65 fee (or local schools making up the difference).

The budget includes a stepped-up state effort to strengthen oversight of local driver’s ed programs by the Department of Public Instruction. A legislative oversight committee will study driver’s ed and recommend improvements next year.

Increases Division of Motor Vehicle fees. The fee for an eight-year driver’s license renewal will rise from $32 to $40. The cost of renewing your car registration each year, not counting the county property tax you pay at the same time, will rise from $51 to $66. This is the first DMV fee hike since 2005. Starting in 2020, the fees will rise every four years under a new inflation-indexed formula.

Adds new fees for late registration renewals. If your registration is expired for less than one month, you pay $15; more than one or less than two months, $20; two months or longer, $25. The late fees will be used to pay for driver’s ed.

Establishes the “DOT Report” program to make DOT more accountable when citizens complain about potholes – which would have to be patched within two business days after the complaint is filed – and other problems.

Increases the highway use (sales) tax on some commercial vehicles.

Gives DOT authority to plan and build more toll roads and bridges. The authorized list is expanded to include 11 projects – nine to be named in the future plus two that are on the books now: the completion of the 540 Outer Loop in Wake County and the Monroe Connector Bypass in Union and Mecklenburg counties.

Bruce Siceloff: 919-829-4527, @Road_Worrier

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