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Senate Transportation Budget Eliminates New Starts Program, Limiting Hard-Working North Carolinians’ Mobility Choices

Do you hear that sound? It could be Charlotte’s plan for the Blue Line Extension coming to a screeching halt as a result of the Senate budget proposal for transportation, which would eliminate the Public Transportation Division’s New Starts & Regional Capital Grant Program and $29 million in state appropriations [1]. New Starts is a grant program that allocates federal transportation resources for mass transit capital projects—such as light rail and bus rapid transit—and requires local and state matching appropriations. The proposal may cause Charlotte to lose out on $534.6 million [2] in federal funding for the Blue Line Extension if state funds are not available to cover the required 25 percent match.

As I mentioned in this space last week [3], public transportation is already woefully underfunded and only makes up 3 percent of overall state appropriations, or about $90.6 million. A $29 million cut would represent nearly a one-third cut to state appropriations for public transportation. Given Senate budget writers are leaving large sums of federal money on the table, it remains to be seen why this program is on the chopping block. Perhaps Senate budget writers will use this cut as leverage when they iron out differences with House budget writers? One thing is for certain: data shows [4] low-income North Carolinians rely on public transportation to get to work and they would likely be impacted by this cut.

Compared to the House proposal, the Senate’s proposed budget cut to public transportation is roughly 11 times larger. Where does this difference show up? This larger cut to public transportation in the Senate proposal is nearly offset by smaller cuts to highway and road maintenance compared to the House cuts. Like the House proposal, the Senate proposal would provide $45 million for the Mobility Fund but would go a step further and also appropriate $32.5 million on a non-recurring basis.

Similar to the Governor’s and House’s budget proposals, the Senate budget proposal would also cap the state’s gas tax at 37.5 cent per gallon for FY 2012-13. The tax is already expected to fall to 37.7 cents [5] by July. The Budget and Tax Center released a report  [6]last month on the pitfalls of capping the gas tax, which would likely delay needed repairs to the state’s backlog of stressed roads and bridges. Unlike the House proposal, Senate budget writers would not require the Department of Transportation to budget under the assumption that the gas tax will be set at 35 cents for FY2013-14 through FY2106-17—a move that would ultimately restrict the department’s ability to base transportation planning on actual revenues.

Lastly, the Senate proposal would no longer charge $45 to teenagers participating in a driver education course. Instead of paying $45 for the course, teenagers will pay the $45 fee when they get their limited learner’s permit. As such, the Senate proposal would appropriate nearly $3.2 million to the Department of Public Instruction to cover the upfront costs associated with the courses. Nearly $2.1 million would come from the Commercial Leaking Petroleum Underground Storage Tank Cleanup Fund—which receives funding from the gas tax—to cover the appropriation to DPI. While this raid change would likely give teens a longer time period to save up $45, it also points to the challenges that have been inherent in last year’s efforts to raise resources through fees.