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North Carolina Republicans Launch 11th Hour Attack on Durham-Chapel Hill Light Rail

Republicans in the North Carolina legislature are trying to snuff out an 18-mile light rail project, approved by voters in Chapel Hill and Durham. Map: GoTriangle

A budget bill heading for a vote in the North Carolina statehouse this week could sabotage a light rail project for the Research Triangle region that's on the verge of construction.

About $148 million has already been spent on planning and engineering for the 18-mile light rail route connecting the fast-growing job hubs of Durham and Chapel Hill. Local voters in Durham and Orange counties voted in 2011 and 2012 to raise sales taxes by half a percent to pay for the $2.5 billion project.

Go Triangle, the regional transit agency, was planning to apply for $1.2 billion in federal support next year. Construction would then begin in 2020.

But inside the budget bill from the state's Republican supermajority is a passage that would make "a light rail project" ineligible for state funding unless all federal and local funding has been secured.

That creates an impossible Catch-22, because the Durham-Chapel Hill light rail project can't access federal funds unless state and local contributions have been secured. The state had previously pledged to contribute 10 percent, or $247 million.

Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, could veto the budget, but a unified Republican vote in the legislature would override him.

Democrats from Orange and Durham counties point out that the measure would harm some of the state's largest economic centers. Three of the state's 10 biggest employers are located along the route.

"It’s the spiteful mentality,” Penny Rich, vice chair of the Orange County Commission, told the Herald Sun.

Republicans in the statehouse have tried to scrap the project before. Originally, the state was expected to chip in about a quarter of the funding. An earlier GOP attempt to kill would have limited state funding for the project to $500,000, and that was later revised to cover 10 percent of project costs.

The passage in question cannot be removed from the budget bill. An up or down vote is expected this week.

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