North Carolina Lawmakers May Quickly Reverse Anti-Light Rail Measure

The last-minute legislative sneak attack on light rail plans for Durham and Orange counties in North Carolina was an example of politics at its worst. Thankfully, it may not have staying power.

Light rail between Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina, is expected to draw 23,00 riders a day. Image: Triangle Transit
Light rail between Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina, is expected to draw 23,000 riders a day. Image: Triangle Transit

Lawmakers who still won’t identify themselves inserted language into a state budget bill sabotaging the light rail project. There was no public debate. There was no warning that transit funding was even under discussion.

The budget measure placed an arbitrary cap on state funding for a light rail project: $500,000. Doing so undermined the process established by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature for awarding transportation funds, which is supposed to be free from political interference. Through that process, project leaders had been counting on $138 million from the state to match federal funding and money from taxpayers in Orange and Durham counties, who voted to tax themselves to pay for the project.

But sanity may prevail after all. The News Observer reports that next Monday, Wake County Republican Paul Stam will insert language into a local spending bill aimed at reversing the light rail cap. Other lawmakers had attempted to add wording that would have threatened Wake County’s transit plans. But that was beaten back by Stam and a wider, bipartisan coalition.

Advocates are urging North Carolina residents to contact their representatives and tell them to support rolling back the spending cap.

Kym Hunter, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the anti-light rail budget rider sets a bad precedent and unneccessarily inserts politics into a funding process that was designed to reward merit.

“There are already significant limitations placed on non-highway projects,” she said. “The amount of money that’s designated for non-highway projects has decreased significantly and it was already low. It’s not the type of forward thinking transportation solution we need for our growing population.”

Voters in Durham and Orange counties voted to tax themselves to pay for the 17-mile light rail line, serving the booming area between Durham and Chapel Hill, part of North Carolina’s “Research Triangle.” It is expected to serve 23,000 daily riders.

  • Bolwerk

    Gotta love how somehow transit advocates who support rail (rarely, if ever, exclusively) are always denigrated as overzealous “railfans” by people with other modal biases, but it’s almost always rail that gets blocked by people who allegedly support free choice and local control.

  • AlexWithAK

    “We need less government interference in our daily lives! That is unless it’s something we disagree with ideologically. Then we need to wield the power of the government to make sure we get our way.”

  • CeeTee55

    Funny when they have their druthers transit-haters are just as anti-bus as they are anti-rail. (See Tennessee).

  • bolwerk

    I said “almost always” with Tennessee in mind. But they are definitely more anti-rail.

  • G1991

    The concentrations of urban areas and their residents pay massive amounts of money into the State transportation fund, much more than they get back. What little money the cities do get back should be spent on what will best serve the city’s needs, not fund neighborhood destroying highway projects that only serve suburban and rural residents looking to pass through the city as quickly as possible in their private automobiles.

  • CeeTee55

    I’d say they play a game of being ‘more reasonable’.

    Rail projects will be described as ‘wasteful boondoggles’ and BRT (or just plain ol’ buses) will be held up as’ more flexible’ (by “more flexible”, they mean that they think it will be easier to get rid of at some future point when their political power increases)…but when push comes to shove they don’t like BRT either. They’d just as soon have no public transit. They especially hate rail because its infrastructure represents a permanent investment in public transit and that just sticks in their craws.

  • CeeTee55

    As I heard once, “Decisions about local policy should be kept local. Unless people make the wrong decision, in which case we’ll step in”.

  • bolwerk

    Yeah, I figured they’re just less threatened by BRT because they see it as cheaper and easier to dispense with. I suspect they also fetishize the idea appropriating any BRT infrastructure, so they can tolerate it to to that extent too. But they certainly hold a special contempt for bus riders, which may have tipped the scales in TN (where rail wasn’t even on the table).

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