What’s Left After the General Assembly Went Home

The North Carolina General Assembly has wrapped up one of the longest legislative sessions in recent memory.

Municipalities’ ability to make decisions specifically impacting their communities, public school funding being diverted to charter schools, light rail spending, status of sanctuary cities, and the discreteness of the search for the next UNC system president were all up for debate in the whirlwind of action over the final few days of the legislative session.

Local Government Control: Senate Bill 279

A piece of legislation was introduced on the final day of the legislative session that proposed restrictions on local governments, before flaming out in spectacular fashion.

The changes were introduced as part of an unrelated bill that started out in an attempt to address qualifications of sexual education experts to approve sex ed curricula in school districts across the state. Throughout the intense debate on Tuesday, social media lit up with protests over the surprise amendment. LGBT advocates argued the move was aimed at reversing decisions by some municipalities extending discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation.

After being voted down by the House Rules Committee, a previous version of the bill – without the restrictive language – was passed by the Senate.

Charter School Funding: House Bill 539

Another piece of controversial legislation was also stopped in committee Tuesday night. The bill would have shifted some traditional public school funding to charter schools.

Public schools already split funding with charter schools based on enrollment numbers, but the new proposal would have taken money from pots previously reserved for public schools and diverted it to charters across the state.

Supporters say the bill would just provide equal funding to charter schools. Opponents argued against allowing charter schools to split funding for nutritional meals and transportation with public schools, because charter schools are not required to provide the same food and transportation services as traditional schools.

The bill could be brought back up in the short session next year.

Lawmakers said they wanted more time to evaluate charter school needs.

Light Rail Spending Amendment of Revenue Law Changes: Senate Bill 605

The House had voted earlier in the week to pass an amendment that would have removed the $500,000 spending cap on light rail.

The cap was originally placed in the state budget with no discussion beforehand.

Some have called the cap a “project killer” for the Durham – Orange Light Rail project, because the 17-mile light rail proposal is counting on 25 percent of the funding to come from state dollars.

The Senate sent the amended legislation to committee, where it will stay until at least next April.

The legislation to remove the cap could be reevaluated next session.

Sanctuary Cities: House Bill 318

Legislation is heading to Governor Pat McCrory that would ban sanctuary city policies, similar to what Chapel Hill and Carrboro have in place, from being adopted in the future.

This places the status in our community in limbo with several jurisdictional questions left to be answered, likely through litigation.

Protestors delivered letters to Mcrory on Wednesday asking him to veto the legislation. Another protest was held on the UNC campus on Thursday.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt spoke with WCHL’s Blake Hodge about the proposal earlier in the week before it was passed. Listen below:

UNC President Search: Senate Bill 670

Finally, term limits have been placed for members to serve on the UNC Board of Governors, who will now only be able to serve three four-year terms on the 32-member board.

An amendment on the bill had called for a public meeting with the final three candidates for the president of the 17-campus UNC System.

That proposal was removed before the bill was finally passed to the governor.

Now the dozens of pieces of legislation that were nailed down in a fast-paced few hours await the signature of Governor Pat McCrory to become the law of the land.


House Votes to Remove Light Rail Spending Cap

***UPDATE: The North Carolina House voted on Monday night to remove the spending cap that was initially placed on light rail spending in the state budget signed earlier this month.

The state Senate is expected to vote on the legislation Tuesday. If passed, the bill would then go to Governor McCrory for his signature. ***

A surprise cap on light-rail projects in the recently signed North Carolina state budget may be short lived, if some lawmakers get their way.

Local Democratic House Representative Graig Meyer says a cloud of mystery is still hanging over the implementation of a $500,000 spending cap on light rail projects in North Carolina, a cap that some have called a “project killer” for the proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail line.

“The Durham and Orange County legislative delegation were concerned about the budget provision that limited spending on light rail,” he says, “because no one in legislative leadership talked to any of us before inserting that into the budget.

“And no one will tell us who inserted it or why.”

Meyer says a proposed amendment has bipartisan support from urban representatives after Wake County Republicans were able to remove language that would place additional caps on Wake County spending.

“Two of the Republicans who were instrumental in removing the Wake County provision were also agreeable to working with our delegation, who are all Democrats, to try and address the Durham and Orange County issue,” he says. “We’re likely going to try and do so on Monday night when that bill moves to the floor for a full vote from the House.”

Meyer says it is too late to make any changes to the budget that was signed earlier this month, but the proposed amendment would nullify the spending cap.

Meyer adds there are multiple reasons some Republicans are joining the local Democrats in the fight to remove the cap.

“One reason is that it changes something that the Republicans put in place last year,” he says, “which was supposed to be a non-political process for identifying how to fund transportation needs. Instead of everything in transportation going to whoever is the most powerful and could get it for their district, to have something that’s actually based on needs and the number people that it would help.

“This starts to unravel that plan, and the people who worked on that plan don’t want to see their idea get chipped away at.”

Meyer says other Republicans are interested in removing the cap because they see it as overreach from state lawmakers into local issues.

The cap has a major influence on the feasibility of the Durham-Orange Light Rail proposal because the $1.6 billion project is counting on 25 percent of the funding coming from the state, with 50 percent coming from federal dollars and the remaining 25 percent from local money raised through the sales tax change implemented in Durham and Orange Counties.

Meyer says he is encouraged to see initial support from some Republican members of the House, but that by no means guarantees the amendment receives the needed support.

“All of this, of course, is contingent upon getting the support of the majority of both chambers,” he says. “And we’re not sure where the Republican leadership will come down on this because they certainly were in favor of the cap that was put in place in the budget.

“They may not be fans of our efforts to try and change that cap.”

Meyer says he has heard from constituents who are against the current light-rail proposal.

“I think that people on both sides of the light rail debate in Orange County have legitimate points,” he says. “I represent rural Orange County for the most part, as well as a little bit of Chapel Hill. And I understand why many of the rural residents are concerned that light rail isn’t going to meet some of their needs.

“And I think there are some legitimate concerns about whether the current light-rail plan is the right plan.”

But Meyer adds details of the plan can be negotiated to find a compromise as long as there is funding from the state.

“In this case, I’m trying to work to undo the budget cap because I feel like the budget cap was a bad piece of policy that was enacted in a bad way,” he says. “And that the concerns that are legitimate about what is going to happen with light rail are ones that can be negotiated through our local elected officials who are part of the team that’s trying to figure out what’s the best way to move forward with public transportation.”

Two public hearings on the current light-rail proposal are scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday.


GoTriangle ‘Still Evaluating’ NCGA’s Light Rail Spending Cap

Jeff Mann is the general manager of GoTriangle, the transit authority that’s been working to build a light rail line from Durham to Chapel Hill. He says the legislature’s cap on spending may not be enough to derail the project.

“We’re still evaluating what the provision would mean to the project,” says Mann. “Obviously it’s a hurdle that we would have to overcome, but we’re still looking at alternatives and evaluating what it means, so I’m not prepared to say now that it’s a project-killing provision, only that we will continue to evaluate funding alternatives and work hard to support the project, because we believe it’s vital to the region.”

Buried in the state budget released this week is a provision that would cap funding for light rail projects at $500,000 dollars per year, far less than the $138 million total transit planners had been expecting.

“[The project] was allotted that funding through the Strategic Transportation Investments Law, which scores projects through a data-driven process,” says Mann. “This cap that has been inserted in the budget would circumvent that process and not allow expenditures of that $138 million except for that small amount.”

Transit officials worry the cut in state funds could also jeopardize federal funding for the $1.6 billon dollar project.

“Projects such as this, that are funded through the Federal Transit Administration, typically are funded in a formula that’s 50 percent federal funding, 25 percent local funding, and 25 percent state funding,” says Mann. “So obviously it’s a concern if we don’t have the matching funds to match the federal 50 percent.”

Just a day before the state budget was released, the Federal Transit Administration awarded GoTriangle $1.7 million to help plan development around light rail stops.

Despite the legislature’s spending cap, Mann says he’s committed to moving forward with the planning process and seeking other sources of funding if necessary.

“We want folks to know that we’re still working for this project. We think it’s the right project for the region. We keep evaluating alternatives for the project to move forward because we think its a vital project.”

The 17-mile light rail line is still in the project development phase. GoTriangle anticipates asking permission from the FTA to enter into the engineering phase early next year.

In the meantime, as transit planners assess their funding options, GoTriangle is preparing to host a series of public hearings on the recently-released environmental impact study that narrows down potential routes through Orange and Durham counties.

For a full list of those meetings, click here.


Light Rail Project Clears Hurdle

The light rail project connecting Chapel Hill and Durham has cleared a major hurdle.

Natalie Murdock is the spokesperson on the project for GoTriangle. She says the Federal Transit Administration signed off on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement last Thursday.

“Essentially, this allows us to go forward and show the public everything that we’ve been working on at a very intense pace,” she says, “taking a four-year process and really trying to whittle that down into two years.”

Murdock says this draft statement focused on potential environmental impacts along the pathway from Chapel Hill to Durham.

“Throughout those 17 miles, we did have a number of environmentally-sensitive areas,” she says. “In this document, you will see our recommendation as to how we can offset some of those environmental impacts.

“And also ways that we can try to avoid impacts to communities and institutions.”

Murdock adds work has narrowed down on the potential path of the tracks.

The funding for the project is coming from local, state, and federal funds. Murdock says that will follow a 25-25-50 format, with 25 percent from the local level through a sales tax increase already approved by Orange and Durham County voters, 25 percent from the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and 50 percent to come from the federal government.

A public comment period will open for 45 days after the formal FTA approval, which is expected on Friday.

Murdock says that will set off the next chain of events on the timeline.

“That final document will be finalized around February 2016,” she says. The final environmental-impact document approval will lead to additional authorization being sought from the FTA regarding engineering. “At that time, if the federal government allows us to proceed with the engineering, then in 2019 we will pursue 50 percent funding from the federal government and begin construction in 2019.”

The public comment period will include two public information sessions and two public hearings. The Friday Center will host an information session on September 15 and a public hearing on September 29.

“We need to hear from the public how they think the project will help their community,” Murdock says, “what concerns they have about how it will impact their community; if they think it will impact their access to work; if it will impact the access that customers will have to a business owner’s business.

“Those are the types of comments that we do need to hear from the public.”

You can view the draft proposal here.


Lavelle, Other Electeds Tour Future Light Rail Line

The light-rail line connecting Durham and Chapel Hill is still more than a decade away from becoming a reality – but planners are already hammering out the details about the specific path that line will trace, and they’re hoping to have some of those questions answered this spring.

With that in mind, about 10 elected officials and other municipal staff – including Carrboro mayor Lydia Lavelle – went on a bus tour earlier this week to trace the proposed line for themselves.

Mayor Lavelle spoke to WCHL’s Aaron Keck about the tour and the proposal on Friday.


Planners are seeking public opinion now about the proposed line – trying to balance the needs of commuters, businesses and residents with a larger concern for protecting environmentally sensitive areas. When it’s completed, the light-rail line will connect Chapel Hill and the UNC campus with Duke University and downtown Durham.

Durham Orange Light Rail Transit Project Map

To learn more about the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project and to offer your feedback and input, visit OurTransitFuture.com.


Triangle Transit Holds Light Rail Open House

Triangle Transit invited the public to give input on the proposed 17-mile light rail line extending from UNC Hospitals to east Durham, on Wednesday afternoon at the Friday Center.

Katharine Eggleston, transportation engineer for Triangle Transit, presented possible routes for the rail line.

“The most important news we have tonight is that the C1 alternative has been eliminated,” said Eggleston.

Officials were considering this route that crosses Little Creek. The Army Corps of Engineers does not authorize building the C1 route, which would cross Army Corps’ property. Three alternative routes at Little Creek are still on the table.

People walked around talking to transit officials and looking at information stations, which had maps and key questions officials are considering.

Five key questions:

  • To build or not to build the light rail line
  • Which rail route to build at Little Creek
  • Which route to build at New Hope Creek
  • Where to build the station at Duke/VA Medical Centers
  • Where to build the Rail Operations and Maintenance Facility


Patrick McDonough, a Planning Manager from Triangle Transit, said he is hearing a lot of questions about the environmental impact.

“Folks are interested in, ‘How are we crossing the creeks? How many acres of wetlands are impacted, and what are the different types of impacts?’” McDonough said.

John Kent has been involved in a committee that advises local governments on planning for New Hope Creek, and he volunteers to monitor the creek’s water quality. He came to hear results of Triangle Transit’s environmental studies. Kent feels the environmental analysis should go deeper.

“Fragmenting habitat is one thing that needs to be looked at more closely,” said Kent in an interview.

You can find a visual overhead tour of the light rail project here. A Triangle Transit website says the line “could start (operation) in 2025/2026.” You can find out more and send comments at the website, ourtransitfuture.com.

The next public session is on Thursday from 4 to 7 pm at the Durham Station Transportation Center. That’s at 515 W Pettigrew Street in Durham.


More Sales Tax, Less Grant Money For OC Bus And Rail Plan

HILLSBOROUGH- In their 2013 report to the board, Triangle Transit officials offered Orange County Commissioners both good news and bad regarding funding for the Orange County Bus and Rail Plan.

John Tallmadge is Triangle Transit’s director of regional services development. He told the Board on Tuesday that sales tax revenues are up, but state and federal funding is down.

“We’re expecting less federal and state dollars to provide these services that are promised in the plan and the projects that are promised in the plan, and that is offset by better actual receipt of sales tax revenues,” said Tallmadge.

The bus and rail plan was adopted in 2012 after voters approved a half-cent sales tax to help fund the plan. Transit planners originally estimated the sales tax would generate $5 million in 2014, but they’ve since revised that estimate up to $6.2 million.

Orange County Interim Manager Mike Talbert said that’s because the economy has bounced back following the Great Recession of 2008.

“We did do these original estimates coming out of the Great Recession and we were very cautious on those estimates,” said Talbert. “From what we know today, that $6 million dollar number on an annual basis is fairly realistic with what we anticipate to happen in the next few years.”

Other sources of transit funding are less certain. The bus and rail plan calls for the expansion of bus service throughout Orange County during the next five years, but Tallmadge said both the state and federal funding models for new buses and park and ride lots have changed substantially in the past 18 months.

The original plan relied on federal grant money to cover 80 percent of the cost to purchase new vehicles. Triangle Transit now estimates that will drop to 30 percent. State money, which was anticipated to provide 10 percent matching funds, is expected to be cut in half. Tallmadge said transit planners hope to continue with the bus service expansion by relying more on local sales tax dollars than grant money.

“We know we’re not going to have the grant funds to do everything we thought we were going to do, but now we have a more optimistic forecast of how much sales tax we’re going to use,” said Tallmadge. “The first thing we should do with that is make the plan whole so that we can deliver what we promised.”

Commissioner Earl McKee questioned the revised financial projections, saying he’s not comfortable with the moving targets in the plan’s funding model. Triangle Transit General Manager David King replied that the financial projections are undergoing constant scrutiny and revision.

“We budget one year at a time, and if we err on the liberal side and end up in the hole, we correct every year for that mistake,” said King. “It’s a very dynamic process and I think the early results are quite good.”

Further, King stressed that none of this is expected to impact planning for either the Hillsborough train station or the 17-mile Durham-to-Orange light rail line included in the transit plan.

The light rail project has been submitted to the Federal Transit Administration for permission to begin environmental impact studies. King said a reply is expected in the next 10 days.

Meanwhile, Triangle Transit and Orange Public Transit are currently developing a plan for new rural bus routes which should be implemented in the fall.



At U.S. Mayors Conference, Kleinschmidt Talks Transit

WASHINGTON – Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt joined Durham Mayor Bill Bell and Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane in Washington, DC this week for the 82nd winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

“This has been a very successful conference,” he says. “We not only had an opportunity to engage with each other and discuss the achievements of cities around the country, but we’ve (also) had great access to the (Obama) administration and cabinet secretaries and their deputies, who help cities like Chapel Hill accomplish the goals we have for ourselves.”

More than 250 mayors from across the country registered for the conference. Participants got to meet with President Obama, Vice President Biden, and other administration officials.

Kleinschmidt says mayors this year were especially concerned with urging the executive branch to take action on issues where Congress is slow or unlikely to move.

“A lot of mayors are concerned that Congress isn’t moving with policy changes that urban areas across the country have been asking for for years,” he says. “And there’s a great level of enthusiasm for the President’s commitment to make things happen now–and use his pen, when he has the ability to do so, in order to make things happen.”

One of those issues is transportation—and on that issue, Kleinschmidt says the Triangle is in a uniquely strong position, because the new Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, is a former mayor of Charlotte.

“As you know, Orange and Durham Counties are submitting a transit plan that includes light rail, (and) we also hope that Wake County will come along (on that) soon,” Kleinschmidt says. “We had some good conversations with Secretary Foxx about that.”

And Kleinschmidt says Foxx also agreed to look into how Chapel Hill might resolve another recent transportation-related issue: whether or not the town is required to allow individuals with permits to carry concealed weapons on public buses.

The Conference of Mayors ended on Friday, but Kleinschmidt is staying in DC for one more day to attend a second conference—the winter meeting of the Mayors Innovation Project. Chapel Hill will play host to that conference’s summer meeting this August.


TTA: OC Transit Plan Off To A Good Start

CHAPEL HILL- Triangle Transit General Manager David King told county commissioners on Tuesday that plans to implement new bus services in Orange County and build a light rail line to Durham are well underway.

The biggest piece of the entire package is, of course, the light rail,” said King. “We are working on planning that not unlike if we were planning a major freeway.”

Orange County’s half-cent sales tax for transit was levied last month, but the first revenues won’t be disbursed until July. Triangle Transit staffers estimate that in the first year taxes and fees will generate $7.3 million dollars in Orange County. Half of that will go towards planning for light rail, slightly less than half will go into a reserve fund, and 10 percent will be used to fund bus services.

But access to state and federal funding is less certain.

Despite rushing to submit an application for federal funding last September, King says Triangle Transit now needs to reapply due to a change in the grant criteria that mandates more environmental study of the light rail route.

Once you enter what everybody calls the federal pipeline, you’ve got two years- 24 months to complete the environmental part of the work,” said King. “The clock starts sticking as soon as they admit you into the pipeline. We feel like we’ve got maybe 26 or 28 months of work that can’t be crammed into 24. We certainly don’t want to take that risk since that is a major metric.”

There are also questions being raised about the impact of the state budget on the plan. The draft Senate version could make it harder for towns and counties to access funding for transit projects like light rail.

Twenty-five percent of the funding needed for the light rail line is slated to come from the state; fifty percent from the federal government.

On a local level, Triangle Transit officials said expanded bus service funded by the plan would likely start next year with added trips on a route from UNC to Southpoint Mall.

Transit planners are also eyeing a Mebane-to-Durham express route in the near future. Earl McKee and Renee Price represent the unincorporated areas of the county, which solidly rejected the transit tax in the 2012 election. Both pressed Triangle Transit officials for assurances that rural residents would be consulted on where new routes should run in central and northern Orange County.

With this paltry amount of $736,000, out of about $7 million, for bus service, there’s no way we can do two routes on this. There’s no way,” said Earl McKee. “So what I want to make sure is, yes, we need data-driven decisions, but that is not the only factor. Service to the citizens that are paying for this must have a priority.”

With that in mind, officials are planning outreach activities throughout the summer to talk to rural residents about where new bus routes should go. They’ll update county commissioners on those efforts sometime this fall.


Transit Tax In Effect In Orange County

ORANGE COUNTY – It’s no joke, the half-cent transit tax approved in November went into effect Monday at midnight.

By a vote of 59 to 41, Orange County residents approved the tax placed on the ballot by the County Commissioners that will supply funding for improved county transportation.

The County has plans for services totaling $661.1 million. Those plans include $131.1 million in new and enhanced bus service, express bus lane improvements on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd ($24.5 million), an Amtrak rail station in Hillsborough ($8.9 million), and a light rail system together with Durham County totaling $496.6 million.

To see a complete breakdown of the plans and some frequently asked questions, click here.