A single sentence buried on page 179 of the budget bill could effectively kill light rail in North Carolina by creating a kind of Catch-22 for transportation officials.
The seemly innocuous passage reads: “A light rail project is ineligible for scoring, prioritization, and State funding until a written agreement is provided to the Department establishing that all non-State funding necessary to construct the project has been secured.”
While this may not seem so bad on the surface of things, these few words could make it practically impossible to build light rail systems to serve North Carolina’s booming metropolitan areas. Because the state generally must provide matching funds to access federal grants for light rail, this provision could make it impossible to draw down the federal dollars that are available for these kinds of projects. If the provision is not fixed, federal funds would likely flow to other states while North Carolina communities that want light rail would have little recourse.
The provision also flies in the face of legislative leaders’ stated goal of removing politics from transportation investments. In 2013, the legislature created a new system for making Strategic Transportation Investments, a system that was meant to make transportation choices more evidence- and need-based. While defending the plan, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger outlined his desire to “be sure that our process is one that’s not political, it should be one that is data driven, focuses on prioritization and encourages planning.” By those standards, the proposed budget language would be a disaster. It would prevent cities from planning for their current and future transportation needs and reinserts politics into the heart of mass transit investments.
Forestalling light rail is also bad for working North Carolinians that lack reliable vehicles of their own. As our cities grow, many low-income residents are being forced to move farther and farther from their places of employment, and expanded mass transit options are vital to closing that gap. Light rail is not the answer everywhere, but it can be a vital piece of the solution in many communities.
Finally, this proposal could make it harder for North Carolina to compete for the jobs of the future. Technology-heavy companies know that many of the people they want as employees like using mass transit, particularly in densely populated urban areas. Relying on cars is already burdensome in some of our state’s biggest cities, and only likely to get worse as these areas continue to grow. North Carolina has been able to compete for many of these jobs based on the low cost of living, at least compared to places like San Francisco and Boston, but as it becomes more expensive to live in our state’s major cities, amenities like light rail will become increasingly important to landing the jobs of today and tomorrow.
Even though the budget will likely pass without the opportunity for amendment, there is still time fix this particular problem. The provision could be removed when the legislature works up a “technical corrections” bill, and that would help keep transportation investments rooted in the kinds of 21st Century options we truly need.
Patrick McHugh is an Economic Analyst for the Budget & Tax Center, a project of the North Carolina Justice Center.