Editor’s note: N.C. Rep. Ric Killian represents House District 105 in south Charlotte.
Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about high-speed rail in North Carolina. Unfortunately, much of the discussion has been unnecessarily politicized. As a chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, it’s my responsibility to create a transportation budget for North Carolina.
Meeting the transportation needs of the 10th-largest state is a daunting task, especially considering North Carolina maintains the second-largest road system in the nation. This is not a partisan undertaking. Fiscal responsibility is neither Republican nor Democrat; it’s a duty of every legislator.
Spending $545 million in federal money to decrease travel time between Charlotte and Raleigh by 13 minutes will obligate North Carolina taxpayers indefinitely, create another financially unsustainable system, decrease the value of the North Carolina Railroad Company and permanently eliminate the ability to use the North Carolina Railroad as an economic development tool in the future.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment – or stimulus – funds do not include future costs to operate and maintain the railroad improvements. Currently, $11.4 million is transferred from the state’s Highway Fund and Highway Trust Fund every year to subsidize the existing service between Charlotte and Raleigh.
After the planned improvements, the N.C. Department of Transportation projects the cost to operate and maintain this section will increase to $41.4 million by 2037 and the cumulative cost to operate the system will exceed the $520 million in federal funds. Most citizens already agree there are insufficient funds to maintain and complete construction of the existing road system. Continuing to dilute these resources through transfers from the Highway Fund and Highway Trust Fund for high-speed rail will make the situation worse.
Government at all levels must stop creating systems that are financially unsustainable. We must focus our precious transportation funds on safety, maintenance and completion of existing projects to relieve congestion. It’s simply more efficient and practical to move people on roads and goods on rail.
Many citizens are unaware that North Carolina has a railroad company. The North Carolina Railroad Company has existed for more than 150 years. It’s not an operational railroad, but rather a 200-foot wide right of way stretching 317 miles from Morehead City to Charlotte. Some of the right of way is leased to Norfolk Southern, providing income to maintain the right of way without any taxpayer support.
The citizens of North Carolina own the North Carolina Railroad. It’s self-managed and reports to the General Assembly.
Including high-speed rail on the North Carolina Railroad will decrease the value of the railroad. The most accurate method of determining the value of the railroad is through its income. The N.C. Department of Transportation’s operating and maintenance estimates show that passenger rail generates annual losses, but the Norfolk Southern lease shows that freight traffic generates profits.
As owners of the railroad, all citizens should want to increase its value, and as stewards of this railroad company, the General Assembly has a responsibility to maximize its value. There is limited capacity within the railroad’s 200-foot right of way, and allocating a significant portion of that for passenger rail between Raleigh and Charlotte permanently decreases the state’s use the railroad as an economic development tool.
Projected world population growth and expansion of the Panama Canal will soon provide a phenomenal opportunity for ports along the east coast. Were the North Carolina State Ports Authority able to increase the capacity of its existing ports or build a new port with 50-foot depth near the end of the line in Morehead City, North Carolina would be uniquely positioned to transport manufactured goods to the rest of the world along the North Carolina Railroad and bring products from North Carolina through the planned intermodal facility in Charlotte to the Midwestern U.S. and beyond.
Using the railroad’s capacity for passenger rail would create a chokepoint between Raleigh and Charlotte that would eliminate this possibility. Rather than figuring out how to take a few minutes off a ride between Raleigh and Charlotte, we should consider how to leverage the railroad to create new agriculture and manufacturing jobs to meet the needs of the world and put North Carolinians to work.
Proponents of accepting the $545 million in high-speed rail funds contend we must accept this money because it’s free federal money and will create jobs. Is there anyone left in the United States who doesn’t understand that the federal government has a $14 trillion debt that, at best, is hampering economic recovery and, at worst, threatens our national security?
With state unemployment hovering at slightly less than 10 percent, of course everyone wants jobs. However, we must distinguish between temporary publicly funded jobs and more sustainable market-driven, private-sector jobs. The short-term gain of jobs associated with high-speed rail is not worth the long-term pain.
In the end, spending $545 million to cut 13 minutes in travel time is unacceptable. Moreover, this is only a small part of the overall project. The governor’s budget also includes requests for Passenger Rail Infrastructure and Investment Act funds, which are an 80 percent federal grant with a 20 percent state match. These funds are necessary to complete the Raleigh-to-Richmond portion of the project. According to the Department of Transportation website, total cost to complete the entire project will reach $3.7 billion.
The risk of potential rising construction costs, unfunded future operating and maintenance costs, decreased value of the North Carolina Railroad and the crippling of the railroad as an economic development tool is not worth the publicly funded temporary jobs and expansion of our federal debt.
Recently, North Carolina earned the dubious distinction of having two of the worst congested areas in the nation – including Interstate 485 in south Charlotte – and high-speed rail would not improve that problem.
Let’s concentrate on using of our Highway Fund and Highway Trust Fund dollars in the most efficient manner to meet the needs of all state citizens. Let’s spend transportation dollars based on safety, congestion relief and mobility, not special-interest-driven political philosophy. Someday North Carolina may have the density to support high-speed rail, but for today, let’s concentrate our effort on maintaining our road system and relieving congestion.