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Anti-federal rail funding bill takes a beating

Posted April 5, 2011 9:17 p.m. EDT
Updated April 6, 2011 7:55 a.m. EDT

Rep. Ric Killian’s bill to restrict the state’s ability to accept federal high-speed rail funds took a beating today in House Transportation. No votes were scheduled, which was probably a good thing for Killian, R-Mecklenburg, all things considered. Even his own Charlotte city council voted 6-1 last night to oppose H422.

Mayors and city officials lined up today to ask lawmakers to defeat the bill. Engineers and contractors spoke against it, too, saying the improvements the federal money would pay for would increase highway safety, improve passenger and freight capacity, create jobs, and cut pollution. You can watch the raw footage of the meeting here.

Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco couldn’t attend, but sent Deputy Secretary Dale Carroll to testify to lawmakers that the $545 million dollars in federal money at stake would generate 4800 direct jobs, and that businesses considering relocating to NC are looking for mass transit infrastructure because “it demonstrates our commitment to the future.”

The bill’s sponsors reminded the committee and the audience that the money comes with strings attached that could cost the state anywhere from $10 to $160 million over the next 25 years. That money would come out of the state’s Highway Trust Fund, a pot of money that’s taken big hits in recent years.

Rep. Philip Frye, R-Mitchell, said the bill wouldn’t stop the state from taking the federal money – it would just require lawmakers to approve it. “You get 51% to vote,” said R-Mitchell, “you got the money.”

But Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, scoffed at the idea, saying it would take months to get 51% of lawmakers to agree to move a rock off of Jones Street.

“All I’ve heard for two years is ‘Jobs, jobs, jobs,’” Carney said. “Why in the world are we slowing down? This federal money is going to put people to work now.”

Carney and fellow opponent Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Madison, said more than 100 contracts have already been signed in expectation of the money, which would fund projects the House Select Committee on Rail has backed for eight years.

Rapp called Killian’s bill “foolhardy,” pointing out that Frye had a record of voting in favor of the very projects for which he’s now seeking to obstruct funding.

“The fact that we’re even having this discussion really doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Rapp said. “This is where ideology is trumping common sense.”

After the meeting, Killian called those who spoke against it “special interests.” He says the people it would help are the everyday taxpayers that were too busy working to come to the meeting to speak.

“How are we going to be able to maintain our roads and complete our road construction projects if we continue to take money out of those funds?” Killian asked.

“We can’t. We can’t be all things to all people. We have to set our priorities," Killian said. “I come back to my philosophy that I’ve always had, and that’s roads first.”

Killians says the point of the bill is oversight. “I think it’s very imperative and very appropriate for the General Assembly to weigh in any time that a state agency is going to incur a future financial liability.” 

That philosophy would cover a whole lot of federal funds and grants – health, Medicaid, child nutrition - that require the state to contribute money upfront, or maintain the program down the road. Should lawmakers vote on every one of them? 

“I think everything should be considered," Killian said, "But I think it comes back to the General Assembly to make a decision whether or not they would want to have oversight over those specific areas. And I would defer to the judgment of those specific committee chairmen in those cases.”