GOP tries to put brakes on high-speed rail in NC

Posted March 22, 2011 1:59 p.m. EDT
Updated March 22, 2011 6:50 p.m. EDT

— State and federal transportation officials said Tuesday they've reached an agreement to release $461 million in stimulus funds to North Carolina to improve passenger train service between Raleigh and Charlotte.

Some lawmakers, however, want the state to reject the funding unless the General Assembly approves high-speed rail projects.

North Carolina had to obtain an agreement with Norfolk Southern Railway and Amtrak to qualify for the stimulus grants. The Federal Railroad Administration had been concerned that slower freight trains might hamper the faster passenger service.

Part of the rail route between Charlotte and Raleigh is shared with Norfolk Southern freight trains. For passengers, that sometimes means long delays when Amtrak trains must stop to allow a freight train to pass.

The state Department of Transportation said some of the stimulus money will be used to lay new tracks between Greensboro and Charlotte. Curves will be straightened to allow passenger trains to reach maximum speeds of 90 mph, and 12 new bridges will eliminate 30 highway-rail crossings.

"We're talking about modernizing our existing rail system. It's been generations since we put a significant investment into them," said Pat Simmons, director of DOT's Rail Division.

Rep. Ric Killian, R-Mecklenburg, introduced a bill Tuesday to prevent North Carolina from using the stimulus money.

House Bill 422, which could be heard by a legislative committee as early as next week, would penalize DOT for funding any high-speed rail projects without legislative approval.

"I don't use the word 'invest' because I don't believe in that word when it comes to federal money," Killian said. "I frankly am very concerned for our taxpayers, and I think somebody needs to step up and say, 'Wait a minute.'"

He said he believes high-speed rail will cost the state too much, will hurt freight train capacity and won't relieve congestion on the roads.

A number of Republican lawmakers also said they don't want North Carolina committing itself to operating high-speed rail by taking the federal cash. The General Assembly should be part of such spending decisions, they said.

"That really is a legislative issue," said Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake. "What are the costs long term and what are the benefits as a result? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? That discussion has not taken place yet."

Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, said she believes high-speed rail is needed, especially with commuters paying more to put gas in their vehicles.

"We have got to continue moving forward progressively with mass transit in this state," Carney said. "I'm sorry to see this (bill) coming up at this point in time."

The money is part of $545 million the federal government awarded to North Carolina a year ago for rail upgrades to cut travel time from Charlotte to Raleigh to less than three hours, even with seven stops along the way.

Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin have turned down their share of stimulus money for other high-speed rail projects, and DOT officials said North Carolina is applying to pick up a portion of that money.

DOT spokeswoman Nicole Meister said the agency would seek bids for contracts for tracks, bridges and trains.

Some of the work has ready started, including renovation of several train stations on the route, Meister said. A third daily trip between Raleigh and Charlotte also has been added.

Unless Killian's bill passes, the project, which is expected to create nearly 5,000 jobs, should be completed by 2017.