Backtracking on rails: a legislative reversal

The N.C. General Assembly last week appeared to be smiling broadly on building and improving roads while frowning on mass transit in the state — particularly long planned-for investments in rail transit that eventually could have facilitated passenger service to Asheville. And Rep. Ray Rapp of Mars Hill wasn’t happy about it.

At the heart of the matter was a bill (HB 422) that would prohibit the N.C. Department of Transportation from accepting any funds from the federal government for a high-speed rail project without explicit approval from the General Assembly. And while the bill saw some proposed modifications in committee, Rapp minced no words in describing its overall effect from his point of view, calling it a “frontal assault on public transportation in North Carolina.”

“It marks a triumph of ideology over common sense,” Rapp told the Xpress by email, adding that the funding restrictions being debated “threatened the loss of 4,800 jobs in the short term and the loss of a faster, safer rail line between Charlotte and Raleigh in the long run.” That line, he emphasized, is important to any future service to Asheville because that connection point is on the Charlotte/Raleigh line slated for upgrading.
“As ridership continues to grow — and last year it exceeded 800,000 passengers on all trains,” Rapp explained, “the chance of getting service to Asheville increases.”

Rapp knows a few things about North Carolina and rail transit. He is a five-term Democrat representing Haywood, Madison and Yancey counties, and a long-time proponent of increased rail service in the state. He co-sponsored, for example, the 2005 session law that directed NCDOT to report to the General Assembly on strategies to best utilize federal funds for rail improvements — especially for service to western and southeastern parts of the state. He co-chaired the 2005 House Select Committee on Expanding Rail Service (see report), and later the House Select Committee on a Comprehensive Rail Service for North Carolina project that made specific recommendations to the General Assembly in 2009 (see report), then chaired a 2010 committee working towards the same goals. But that was on a Democratic-majority watch; now the Legislature is dominated by Republican majorities in both houses.

Rapp said current Republican attempts to prohibit or restrict federal mass transit funds, including the budget approved by the House Transporation Appropriations Subcommittee last Thursday, will make the long-sought approval of federal grants for rail more difficult. “It re-routes most of the state’s transporation monies for roads,” he said about the budget proposal. “This undercuts safety on our highways, grows air pollution in the state and promotes energy inefficiency by putting more cars and trucks on the road rather than on rail.”

And Rapp sees another flaw in the push to keep federal transporation dollars out of North Carolina. “North Carolina remains a donor state,” he said, “meaning that we send more (revenue) to Washington than we receive in transportation funds, and this allocation of $461 million in grants (for rail) represents an equalization of allocations and a step toward developing a system of mass transit in the state.”

In other legislative business last week, Tuesday and Wednesday saw 175 bills hit the charts in the Senate as the deadline for public bills passed. The list of titles alone is worth reading — scroll to the bottom of the bills with 2011 action on the website.

Meanwhile, the WNC public hearing on redistricting takes place this Saturday, 4 p.m., at UNC-Asheville (Robinson Hall) with teleconference sites at Appalachain State University (Anne Belk Hall) and Western Carolina University (Cordelia Camp Building). You may sign up to speak one hour before the meeting, or by visiting the News & Information section on the Legislature’s website. You may also submit your comments online by visiting the same web page.

You may also submit comments here regarding the Restore Confidence in Government bill (HB 351) that would require photo ID for voters. And the online public comment period is still open for the Joint Regulatory Reform Committee here.

New bills of note that joined the legislative roster last week included the following:

SB 689 (Mountain Snow Days): Increases flexibility of local school boards with regard to inclement weather causing the loss of more than 20 days of instruction. Filed; passed first reading; referred to Education/Higher Education. Co-sponsors: Republicans Jim Davis of Cherokee/Clay/Graham/Haywood/Jackson/Macon/Swain/Transylvania counties and Ralph Hise of Avery/Haywood/Madison/McDowell/Mitchell/Yancey counties.

SB 714 (Satellite Early Voting Minimum Times): Requires that during general elections, all satellite early voting sites are open at least the same number of days and hours each week as the county’s board of elections. Filed; passed first reading; referred to Judiciary I. Primary sponsor: Democrat Martin Nesbitt, Jr. of Buncombe County. 

SB 736 (No State Funds for Abortions): Amends current statutes (G.S. 143C-6) to read to prohibit use of state funds for the performance of an abortion or for entities that perform or provide abortions. Filed; passed first reading; referred to Appropriations/Base Budget. Co-sponsor: Hise.

SB 769 (Abortion — Woman’s Right to Know Act): Requires 24-hour waiting period and the informed consent of a pregnant woman before an abortion may be performed. Includes publication of information regarding gestation, pregnancy assistance and adoption assistance, to be provided at no cost by the state in every language that is primary for at least 2 percent of the state’s population. Filed; passed first reading; referred to Health Care. Co-sponsor: Hise.

by Nelda Holder, contributing editor

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One thought on “Backtracking on rails: a legislative reversal

  1. Barry Summers

    Sure, why would you want to invest in rail? That might cut into the highway-building business, and we Tarheels love our ginourmous roads…

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