Is the General Assembly About to Kill Light Rail? | News

Is the General Assembly About to Kill Light Rail?

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The budget adjustment Republicans in the General Assembly crafted behind closed doors, unveiled last night, and are expected to pass by a veto-proof supermajority later this week—for the first time in modern history, without an opportunity for lawmakers to offer amendments, because democracy is for suckers—does a lot of things.

It keeps the tax cuts coming, lowering the personal income-tax rate to 5.25 percent (from 5.499 percent), cutting the corporate tax rate from 3 percent to 2.5 percent, and throwing a ton of incentive money at major new economic projects (cough Apple cough). It includes an average 6.5 percent raise for teachers and a 6.9 percent raise for principals, slightly higher than the earlier budget called for, though not as high as Governor Cooper wanted. It gives every state employee a 2 percent raise and ensures that all state workers make at least $15 an hour. It budgets $60 million for Hurricane Matthew recovery. It reverses cuts to the state’s environmental budget, most likely to deal with the GenX crisis. It digs up $6 million for TROSA to build a new facility in the Triad and $250,000 for something called Cross Trail Outfitters “for purposes of promoting wellness and physical activity for youth seven to 20 years of age.” (On its website, Cross Trail Outfitters puts its mission thusly: “Guiding the next generation to Christ through the outdoors.” OK, then.)

Oh, and the budget also effectively kills light rail dead. Page 179 of the budget document contains the sentence-as-murder-weapon: “Additional Requirement for High-Cost Projects. A light rail project is ineligible for scoring, prioritization, and State funding until a written agreement is provided to the Department establishing that all non-State funding necessary to construct the project has been secured.”

In other words, the N.C. Department of Transportation won’t be allowed to move forward with evaluating the project for state funding until all of the non-state-funding sources are locked down. And there’s the rub: half of the project’s financing—more than $1.2 billion—is supposed to come from the federal government. But the feds are required by law to have secured a 50 percent match from state, local, and other sources before they commit.

What the legislature has done is create a scenario in which the light rail project can’t satisfy the federal government without state funds, which it can’t get without first satisfying the federal government, which it can’t do without state funds, which it can’t get without first satisfying the federal government … and around and around we go.

As WRAL’s Travis Fain puts it, “The new language may set up a chicken-or-the-egg situation: The General Assembly now says no state money without federal guarantees, but federal funding requires a 50 percent match, and the state money has been counted on.”

In a statement posted to its website last night, GoTriangle admits that this is bad.

“We are disappointed by the latest budget language that targets rail transit projects. Durham and Orange counties’ light-rail project has twice received high scores through the data-driven state law designed to take politics out of transportation funding,” said GoTriangle General Manager Jeff Mann. “We are assessing next steps, but the amended budget certainly appears to be detrimental to the light-rail project because federal law requires a commitment of 50 percent in state, local and other funds before the Federal Transit Administration commits the other half for any large transit project in the United States.”

Triangle legislators reacted on Twitter. Representative Marcia Morey, who represents Durham, said the project is "off the rail with this budget proposal." Senator Mike Woodard, also a Durham representative, called the budget language a "classic Catch 22."
Senator Floyd McKissick said the proposal places light rail "in jeopardy."
Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said he hopes a bipartisan coalition of legislators that previously worked to lift a cap on state funding for light rail can push for a corrections bill to amend the language. Schewel said he heard a few days ago that Senate Leader Phil Berger would be introducing the provision, but declined to speculate on the motivation for the proposed change.

“Clearly it’s negative for light rail. If this language does remain the guiding language in the budget it will be very damaging to light rail because it will mean our federal funding would be at risk and we’re on the one-yard line in terms of getting federal funding,” he said, noting the project has scored well before for state funding. “ … I know we have bipartisan support for retaining the current system of transportation funding and not allowing politics to override the merit system” he said.

Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, said the provision is “very concerning.”

“I’m hoping that we can come up with some type of a remedy that will address any concerns there may be about dedicating the state funds that would still permit the process to move forward since we are only really one step away from being eligible for federal funding,” she said.

Jacobs said the project isn’t just important to the Triangle, but would help businesses across the state involved in building the light rail line, support thousands of new jobs, and generate $175 million in new state and local tax revenue.

“The money the state would contribute would come back within probably the first year,” she said. “So it’s a worthwhile investment for the state and will have positive returns many times over.”

Jacobs said she plans to speak with county officials and state legislators about the issue tomorrow during the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners’ County Assembly Day.

“This is not a partisan issue,” she said. “There are people across all sides of the aisle from all over the state that are really trying to help remedy the situation because people realize how important this is for creating jobs, businesses and bringing this huge amount of federal funding directly into North Carolina.”

This is a developing story. 

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