Funding not guaranteed for $2.4B North Carolina light rail
- Revised language in the latest North Carolina state budget could prevent light rail projects like GoTriangle's 18-mile, $2.4 billion Chapel Hill-to-Durham line from obtaining both state approval and federal funding, according to GoTriangle.
- "High-cost" projects are now ineligible for state funding and cannot be scored until they secure the necessary non-state financial support, which includes federal grants. However, a condition of federal grants like the $1.2 billion that GoTriangle has lined up with the Federal Transit Administration requires that rail and other transportation agencies first secure 50% of the project costs in matching funds from the state and other non-federal sources before the money can be released. In this case, the North Carolina state contribution would be 10% of construction costs, according to WRAL. Several years ago, local county voters approved a half-cent sales tax to benefit transit projects, and the Chapel Hill-Durham line has already received and used $88 million of that money.
- There is no indication that state lawmakers are open to changing the provision, and GoTriangle officials said the agency is evaluating what next steps they can take to ensure the project moves forward. The rail line, which is scheduled to start construction in 2020, would create more than 20,000 jobs and inject billions into local and state economies.
The enthusiasm that transportation agencies have for local light rail projects does not always transfer to lawmakers, which is especially problematic because agencies typically rely on state legislatures to fund at least a portion of their transportation initiatives.
In Minnesota, however, the Metropolitan Council, the agency behind the $2 billion Southwest LRT project, found a way to get around reluctant state lawmakers, who refused to authorize the $145 million needed to secure a near-$1 billion federal grant. With the backing of Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, the council was able to get funding commitments from other local agencies in order to raise the money and fill the project's funding gap.
State Republicans were incensed at what they perceived as an end-run around their decision, so they petitioned the FTA to direct the grant to the state rather than the project. The agency responded that the council hadn't even formally applied for the grant but if it had, the money was project-specific and couldn't be diverted to the state for general use on other transportation projects.
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