A fix that would allow N.C. Highway 540 to move forward is on shaky ground – and it's looking like the next victim of the political tension between House and Senate Republican leaders.
House Bill 10 started out as a simple measure to repeal a 2011 law banning the study of the so-called "red route" for N.C. 540, which would cut through the middle of Garner. Town leaders and economic developers lobbied for the ban, saying the mere possibility of the alternate route was stifling business and development in the area.
The ban, which passed easily, had the unintended effect of cutting off all federal money for the highway loop – a $2 billion project that's more than halfway built.
House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam and Senior Budget Chairman Nelson Dollar, the sponsors of the repeal bill, said rescinding the ban is necessary to allow the feds to study the red route, triggering the restart of the project's federal funding. It won House approval by a wide margin.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Senate.
In committee Wednesday morning, Transportation Budget Chairman Bill Rabon ran an amendment to remove three turnpike projects from state statute – the Mid-Currituck Bridge, the Garden Parkway in Gaston County and the Cape Fear Skyway.
The amendment puts those projects back into competition for transportation dollars, sending their earmarked funding into the Mobility Fund to be used for projects statewide.
The amended bill passed the Transportation Committee unanimously and was rushed onto the Senate calendar for a floor vote.
"It is time-sensitive to get the 540 project moving,” Rabon, R-Brunswick, told his colleagues, failing to mention that the bill has been sitting in his committee for more than two weeks.
The Senate tentatively approved the amended measure, 37-13. But third reading was held up by an objection by Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, who insisted on knowing more about the funding moved within the bill.
"This bill does not kill any project. It simply brings the rats into the daylight," Rabon said. "It makes everyone compete on a level playing field for every project in the state. It just makes everything fair and legal and transparent."
Less transparent, perhaps, is the fact that this is just the latest chapter in battles over those turnpike projects between the House and Senate.
In the 2012 budget, the Senate, at Rabon's request, added language to the House version to cut the funding for the Mid-Currituck Bridge and the Garden Parkway by 50 percent in perpetuity.
That language was removed from the final appropriations bill, but it was a contentious sticking point in House/Senate negotiations – one that neither side has forgotten.
Last week, House and Senate leaders openly skirmished over Senate Bill 10, which calls for sweeping changes to state boards and commissions. That bill is now in conference committee.
House leaders also have been complaining about the Senate's delay in sending the governor House Bill 4, which provides funding for group homes to make up for changes in Medicaid rules.
Rabon's turnpike overhaul may make the red route fix the latest pawn in the inter-cameral chess game.
If it's not a "catfish amendment" in the House, it's very close to one. The fact that the bill's two sponsors are House leaders probably didn't go unnoticed by Senate leaders, either. At the very least, it's likely to make for an uncomfortable caucus meeting when the measure comes back to the House.
House Republicans were apparently blindsided by the amendment.
Stam, R-Wake, wasn't in the committee meeting till the end. He said later that he wasn't yet sure about what the amendment did.
Dollar, R-Wake, has not yet responded to questions about what the change means for the bill's future.
House Transportation Chairman Bill Brawley wouldn't say much, either. He represents part of Gaston County, where the Garden Parkway would be built.
"Wheels within wheels," he said, refusing to offer an opinion. "I'm going to to talk to Rabon."
Berry Jenkins, chairman of NC Go!, a coalition of more than 100 transportation advocacy groups across the state, said he supports the idea that road projects should be ranked and prioritized based on their merits. Yet, the amendment concerns him.
"We would hate to see tolling taken off the radar screen of the public (as) one of the viable methods to fund transportation projects in North Carolina," Jenkins said. "We've got to consider that as one of the methods we have."
He predicted that the three projects Rabon wants thrown back into the mix for general highway money likely won't be high-priority projects for the forseeable future.
Jenkins also said he hopes the amendment doesn't scuttle the bill, saying N.C. 540 needs to be completed.
"We'd like nothing to slow down the Wake County project because that's a critical corridor for traffic mobility and congestion relief," he said.