Bell sounds out GOP leaders on transit

Mar. 11, 2013 @ 07:48 AM

Mayor Bill Bell says he got a mixed message from the state’s three top political leaders last week when he sounded them out about their willingness to see the state subsidize rail-based transit for the Triangle.

Bell talked to Gov. Pat McCrory, N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis as part of a delegation from the statewide Metropolitan Mayors Coalition.

Transit figured prominently because local planning for rail connections between Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh has assumed the state would pick up 25 percent of the bill for construction, just as it has for Charlotte’s light-rail system.

But McCrory, Charlotte’s former mayor and a Republican, signaled that while he favors transit, he would expect a Triangle project to meet screening criteria that would include a reduction in congestion before he’d consider supporting it.

Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, told Bell and the other mayors that the construction subsidies the state provided Charlotte are likely the last of their type.

He would favor allowing other communities a chance to fund projects on their own, via voter-approved local-option financing.

Berger, R-Rockingham, was the least supportive, joining key lieutenants in signaling more interest in building roads.

The Senate contingent “didn’t say absolutely no, but it was, ‘Prove the value or merit of it and we’ll see where it goes,’” Bell said, recounting the discussion for the City Council during Thursday’s work session.

Any of the statements from the governor and the legislators could spell trouble, for a few years at least, for local transit planning.

Even McCrory’s talk of looking at congestion-relief benefits could be a poison pill because the current rail plan is designed to be more of an alternative to the road network than a relief valve for it.

To make up for a lack of state funds, the local-option funding Tillis prefers would have to be in addition to the half-percent sales-tax surcharge that’s going into effect in Durham and Orange counties April 1.

And Tillis would insist on additional referenda, even though substantial majorities of voters in Durham and Orange approved the local-option half-cent levy in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

“That’s part of democracy,” Tillis spokesman Jordan Shaw said. “At a time when we’re still recovering from a recession, it’s important that we give citizens input on big decisions like this, especially when it’s going to directly impact their wallet.

Berger’s view, which omitted support for any local-option levies, implies that if local officials want state money they’d be better off tearing up the transit plan and figuring out where to expand existing roads and build new ones.

But that would mean fighting neighborhood and environmental groups, and wouldn’t necessarily solve any fiscal problems. Like rail-based transit, major highways are multi-billion-dollar investments, and state officials freely admit they don’t have much money for them, either.

Bell called the discussions with state leaders “a good, frank exchange.”

The possibility that the state would deny subsidies for rail in the Triangle while providing them for Charlotte does carry some risks for the Republicans, particularly McCrory and Tillis.

Politicians in North Carolina historically have capitalized on anti-Charlotte sentiments when running against contenders from that community, by arguing they’d be inclined once in office to favor the interests of the state’s largest city.

McCrory was part of a run of five consecutive Charlotte mayors to seek statewide office and became the only one to win. And he needed two attempts, scoring last year after a first-time-out loss in 2008 to former Gov. Beverly Perdue.

Perdue in her campaign openly played the anti-Charlotte card, running television ads in eastern North Carolina and in the Greensboro area that argued McCrory would siphon money from rural road projects, presumably for Charlotte’s benefit.

Once in office, however, Perdue acted to accelerate construction of Charlotte’s outer loop.

Shaw denied any favoritism in Tillis’ approach to the issue.

The extension of Charlotte’s existing rail line the state is funding was “an existing project, before we were in the majority,” Shaw said, adding that Tillis opposes state funding for an all-new route that would parallel the Interstate 77 corridor.

“There’s going to be a consistent approach to rail, light rail specifically, moving forward,” Shaw said.