Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Will spurned Wis., Ohio, rail money come to N.C.?

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood dropped major hints today in Charlotte about more federal money coming to North Carolina’s high-speed rail plans, from funds to be reallocated away from Wisconsin and Ohio. LaHood and Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff were in town speaking to about a hundred local and regional politicians and transportation officials.

Both those Midwest states elected Republican governors this month who campaigned against high-speed rail projects in their states that had won big federal grants: $810 million to Wisconsin for Milwaukee-to-Madison, and $400 million to Ohio for the so-called 3Cs project: Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.

“Some governors were elected who said maybe we don’t want to be in the high-speed rail business,” LaHood said. “We are going to reallocate some money from Ohio and Wisconsin.”
Because of North Carolina’s work already on high-speed rail (and its work on intercity passenger rail), he said, “We are going to be making some announcements about that. ... Because of the leadership of the state on high-speed rail, you all are going to be in the high-speed rail business.”

Wisconsin's Gov.-elect Scott Walker has recently been waffling on whether to give back the $810 million, suggesting maybe it could be used for other transportation needs. But Wednesday, speaking in Charlotte, LaHood was specific. "The money's going to be reallocated," he said. Firmly.

Turns out the question of reallocation came up Tuesday at a high-speed rail conference in Richmond. My colleague Jack Betts (see his This Old State blog) asked Patrick Simmons of the N.C. DOT’s rail division about the possibility. Simmons replied to Betts via e-mail: "If OH & WI do not follow through then I expect USDOT to allocate the monies where they can be put to work for the original program of investing in infrastructure, creating jobs, enhancing mobility and so on. From our years of work and previous investments NC is well-positioned to compete for these funds. Several other states will be competitive too."

(See below for more talk of reallocation, this time of streetcar money, possibly toward Charlotte.)

Other key points from the talk:

- LaHood's oft-mentioned use of the term “public-private partnerships.” Why? “There are not enough tax dollars to do all the things we want to do. We have to rely on the private sector.”

- Rogoff (right) heaped praise on Charlotte: "Charlotte has been one of our great success stories," he said. He mentioned not just the light rail but the city's partnership with the private sector (Bank of America) in building the Transportation Center on Fourth Street uptown. He pointed out Charlotte was one of only five cities to win an urban circulator grant for a streetcar and said the city's earlier work to lay the tracks [along Elizabeth Avenue] while pavement was already torn up for a street improvement “is visionary thinking.”

- Rogoff again: People try to pit transit versus highway. "I think it’s a false choice," he said. He pointed out 55 percent of all transit trips in America are on roads – by bus. "I need a good efficient road system."

More reallocation in the future?

This afternoon, amid a lengthy meeting of the Metropolitan Transit Commission about diminished transit revenues, Charlotte Area Transit System chief Carolyn Flowers mentioned that Charlotte was one of only five cities to get a streetcar grant in July. (LaHood mentioned the same). Charlotte, so far, is the only city still moving ahead on its streetcar, she said, and it's possible some of those federal funds might be reallocated.

FTA rules said construction must start within 18 months or the city will lose the money. Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Dallas-Fort Worth also received money for streetcars.

Photo credit: Ray LaHood in Charlotte. DAVIE HINSHAW / CHARLOTTE OBSERVER STAFF


Anonymous said...

I hope JAT at MeckDeck doesn't mind me posting this. Here's a gallon of cold water in your face, Ms. Newsom:

Where to start?

The Metropolitan Transit Commission has spent all day today getting reacquainted with reality. The result confirms everything we’ve said for the past five years about CATS’ transit dreams. The low-lights:

* Admission that the half-cent transit sales tax cannot possibly build the $9.5 billion 2030 Plan.
* The $500m. 10-mile streetcar across Charlotte is dead as far as CATS is concerned. The only portion that has any funding going forward is the 1.5 mile rump bit on Elizabeth Ave. — where the city of Charlotte previously spent $10m. of its road dollars to lay track and generally ruin the road — which requires an additional $37m. to complete. The city opted to raid the General Fund for $12m. to match the $25m. federal grant Rep. Sue Myrick backed. Myrick backed the project despite CATS indicating that it would not pay for the operation of the segment.
* As a result the city now confronts a 1.5 mile nothing it has spent at least $25m. to build and requires untold General Fund dollars to operate. Unbelievable.
* Actual honesty in that the the North line up I-77 will cost at least $456m. and must have some sort of “private financing” to get built. Essentially CATS and its consultants are telling Carroll Gray and the Northern towns that if they’d like a train line they need to go find a way to build one. Alone.
* More truth — CATS expenses will exceed revenues by 2025. Really? Do tell.
* The Independence corridor is on life support. Paging Dan Clodfelter.
* The only thing CATS can afford to build is $1.2b. worth of the line to UNCC. The problem? Figure at least a $1.5b. pricetag for that — possibly $2b. when all is said and done. No wonder CATS says it needs additional tax authority.

Listening intently to all this has been the local Rent Seekers Guild. Recall that the Guild is on record for fully supporting the 2030 transit plan as adopted in 2006 — hence its opposition to the 2007 transit tax repeal effort. But now CATS itself says that the 2030 plan is dead without additional taxes. This suggests a question for Bob Morgan and friends they may not like to answer: Do they support additional taxes for CATS?

Or do they support a new — affordable — transit plan for Charlotte?

Anonymous said...

I can't do any better than JAT at MeckDeck did in concisely summarizing LaHood's statement's and Mary's reaction thereto:

LaHood came to Uptown to say the federal government will punish critical thinking and reward short-term sheep — and the Uptown crowd stood and cheered.

Bless their hearts.

Read your own front page, Ms. Newsom - Charlotte's transit planners are clueless.

Display Name said...

I think it's funny how Republicans built America's industries, railroads, and metropolises, only to now desire a pre-industrial, agrarian society. This great country is falling behind the countries we so handily used to beat at everything that was technological and modern.

Mary Newsom said...

I want to correct a few factual errors in the first comment, which quotes the MeckDeck blog:

I sat in on the whole MTC meeting. I don't think MeckDeck was there, though I'm not positive cause I haven't met him. (Hey, Jeff, let's go grab coffee sometime.)

While some may wish that the streetcar plan is dead to CATS, that's not what the MTC voted to do. But Chris Miller of WBT sent out a misleading Tweet during the morning "Looks like streetcar is gone from long-term transit plan, beyond the 1.5-mile stretch city is building."

But the streetcar isn't gone from the long-term plan, and the MTC didn't kill it.

Yes, there was general agreement the 2030 plan is out of date and needs a major overhaul, because there's currently no money in the pipeline for three of its proposed corridors - the Southeast, the West and the streetcar.

The MTC voted to put its now-projected money toward a scaled-down Blue Line Extension and toward the North commuter rail (aka Red Line) -- IF some non-CATS money can be found to build the Red Line.

The other three corridors are obviously back-burnered until money is found, either through revived sales tax revenues or new taxes or through as-yet-unidentified federal/state grants or allocations. Or all of the above.

Still waiting in the wings: The Federal Transit Administration is changing the rules with which it evaluates commuter rail. If the rule change makes the Red Line eligible for federal funds, then who knows what will happen? That might free up future CATS revenues. For more BLE? Another corridor? Impossible to know at this juncture.

Chris Miller said...

I later clarified via Twitter that new 2030 plan doesn't include anything for streetcar beyond what the city is building. It's moving to the backburner, not dead. Same thing for lines out to the west and southeast corridors.

Steven Vance said...

North Carolina has stiff competition in Illinois.

We (mostly Senator Dick Durbin, a transit champion) will probably lobby harder and longer than any other state for Wisconsin's and Ohio's share, but seeing that we have already been granted so much (over $1 billion), I feel that Mr. LaHood will disburse the grants elsewhere.

I hope the NC state DOT has its act together. The money goes to those with a good plan on how to spend it wisely and quickly.

Anonymous said...

Oh, a streetcar is visionary all right, or at least it was in the 9th century when rubber tired, self propelled omnibuses weren't around. That they rare pointless became all the more obvious when proponents began floating the idea of using self-propelled hybrid diesel electric streetcars on Charlotte's proposed line. A street car with an on board engine is nothing but a bus on steel wheels.

What could possibly justify spending near to $40 million for such nonsense?

Anonymous said...

Charloot is still a wealthy city. If anything Charlotte money should be used to build much of the infrastructure for the rest of the state.

That's what I hate about Charlotte's supposed liberals they have no convictions. Its all about taking from the poor to give to the rich to turn Charlotte into a little NYC (you know the city that has not had a Dem mayor for almost 20 years)