The General Assembly’s Republican leaders are incorrigible when it comes to planting nasty surprises in legislation. Now they’ve done it again on the light-rail project for Orange and Durham counties.
The proposed budget supported by the House and Senate leadership lifts a $500,000 cap on state financing of local passenger-rail projects, a cap that was effectively a ban on state funding. But the bill also includes a new restriction limiting state support to 10 percent of a passenger-rail project’s costs.
That’s a sharp reduction from the 25 percent state funding Charlotte received for its popular light-rail system, and it creates an arbitrary and steep challenge for Orange and Durham. Those counties passed a half-cent local sales tax on the expectation that the state would provide the Orange-Durham Light Rail Transit Project at least the percentage of funding Charlotte received. Now the state share for the $1.6 billion project could be more than $200 million less than anticipated.
In addition, the proposed budget would require the Orange-Durham project to go back through the state’s scoring process in two years and compete again for funding after already winning a high score. That requirement would set back the project by two years and raise doubts about how much state funding it could receive. In addition, the capping and backtracking on the Orange-Durham project complicates prospects for Wake County’s transit plans. Wake’s proposed commuter rail and expanded bus service could connect with the Orange-Durham light-rail system to allow more Trianglewide travel by mass transit. The federal government is more likely to support a regional rather than a local system.
Anti-urban Republican lawmakers may be amused by toying with the Triangle’s mass transit efforts, but this is serious business that could impede an engine of the state’s economy. Every effort should be made to block these pointless and harmful restrictions.