State budget jeopardizes funding for area transit projects

Posted June 29

— The $22.34 billion state budget that Senate approved Wednesday contains a provision that puts a damper on plans for rail projects in the Triangle.

The state Department of Transportation has already pledged $137 million to a planned 17-mile light rail line connecting Durham and Chapel Hill, and planners anticipated that state taxpayers would eventually pick up 25 percent of the estimated $1.5 billion project. Local funding would pick up another 25 percent, with federal transportation funding accounting for the rest.

The state budget, which still needs to pass the House, would cap state funding for light rail and commuter rail projects at 10 percent of the total, however. It replaces a $500,000 cap included in last year's budget.

Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, said the caps reverse recent efforts to fund transportation projects on their merits.

"(We) said we're going to take the politics out of this and let all projects – highway, light rail, other transportation projects – stand on their own and be evaluated on their own. Putting in these artificial caps runs completely counter to that," Woodard said.

"You can’t go back and change the rules because you don’t like the outcome," said Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham.

The Durham-Chapel Hill project also would lose the money DOT earmarked for it under the budget provision. The measure says any approved light rail projects must go back through the vetting process to determine how they stack up against other transportation projects seeking funding.

"We are disappointed by the new, restrictive light rail and commuter rail provisions inserted this legislative session that compromise the integrity of the data-driven transportation funding law passed in 2013 and create new funding and delivery challenges for the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project,” GoTriangle General Manager Jeff Mann said in a statement.

Many Senate Republicans are opposed to light rail, calling it too expensive to be cost effective, and say it's prudent for the state to limit its investment in it.

The budget provision also would limit state funding for a proposed commuter rail line Wake County officials have included in a transit plan. The 37-mile line would run from Garner to Durham, linking Raleigh, Cary and Research Triangle Park. Wake County voters in November will be asked to approve a half-cent increase to the local sales tax rate to help fund the transit plan.

Federal lawmakers also spoke out against the move.

"By reneging on the state’s commitment to transit in the Triangle, the Republican General Assembly threatens to forgo billions in federal funding, undercuts the will of Triangle residents and undermines the rigorous cost-benefit analysis that is the basis for the project," reads a joint statement from 4th District Congressman David Price and 1st District Congressman G.K. Butterfield, both Democrats.


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