Bad Bill of the Week: NC House Bill 988 raids the transportation fund

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Raleigh, NC – We hear dire warnings about North Carolina facing a shortfall of transportation funding as high as $94 billion by 2040.  Our state has crumbling roads, highways and bridges – and needs to accommodate the steady influx of new residents, we are told.

So why do some members of the General Assembly want to essentially raid nearly $150 million from the state’s transportation dollars to finance a boondoggle that will serve only a tiny fraction of the population and not mitigate traffic congestion one bit?

light railHouse Bill 988, Repeal Light Rail Funding Cap, would basically give the green light again to the previously planned Durham-Orange County light-rail line, a proposed 17-mile line going between UNC-Chapel Hill hospitals and Alston Avenue in east Durham. There is a Senate equivalent bill, SB 857.

Last year’s budget bill included a provision to cap state funding for light-rail projects at $500,000 per project. NCDOT had previously promised $138 million of state transportation dollars for the Durham-Orange line, so obviously the $500,000 cap would nix the project. Removing the cap would once again make the project viable.

It is important to note that the House budget proposal passed last week and now being reviewed by the Senate includes a provision to repeal the light-rail funding cap. The provision can be found on page 120 of the House budget bill, in section 35.12.

The total quoted price tag for the proposed Durham-Orange County light-rail line comes to a whopping $1.5 to $1.6 billion. Funding for the line would be divided between a local ½-cent sales tax, increased local car registration fees, and federal and state government dollars.

Government-funded light rail projects are bad ideas for a number of reasons:

  • Projects typically go over projected costs. The average cost overrun globally for light-rail projects is 104 percent. So with a projected price of $1.5 billion, actual costs for the Durham-Orange County line are likely to run closer to $3 billion. Charlotte’s light rail project exceeded projected costs by about 2-½ times.
    • Can the federal government be counted on to help cover the additional costs? Or will state and local taxpayers be forced to finance the heftier price tag?
  • Light rail is a horribly inefficient way to fund transportation needs. Seventeen miles of rail line at $1.6 billion comes to more than $94 million per mile, and that is on the slight chance the project actually comes in according to projected costs. According to the American Road and Transportation Builders association, 4-lane urban highways can be built for roughly $8-$10 million per mile. The Durham-Orange County line is about ten times more expensive per mile than a four-lane highway. And light-rail moves a tiny fraction of the number of commuters as highways do.
  • The Durham-Orange County light-rail line is projected to carry on average 622 passengers per Conversely, highways can accommodate 2,200 cars per lane per hour. Thus, a four-lane highway could accommodate 8,800 cars per hour.
    • In this case, light rail would be ten times more expensive than a 4-lane highway, but carry only about 7 percent as many commuters.
  • Light rail is far more expensive to maintain than highways, and would require heavy subsidies year after year to stay afloat.
  • Light rail does not mitigate congestion. UNC Charlotte professor David Hartgen released a study concluding that Triangle light rail would not reduce vehicle congestion or commute time.

Finally, the Triangle rail service would use state transportation money to fund a project that would be primarily for local use. Local taxpayers would be shielded from shouldering the full burden of this highly localized project. Taxpayers from Asheville to New Bern should not be forced to finance a wildly inefficient and overpriced local train service that would mostly be carrying upper-income Triangle area commuters.

Because it would raid state transportation dollars for a highly inefficient, local boondoggle, HB 998/SB 857 (and its inclusion in the House budget bill) is this week’s Bad Bill of the Week.