Accepting federal rail money a bad idea

To the Editor:

In the April 6-12 issue of The Smoky Mountain News, Carole Larivee wrote a letter to the editor that was headlined “GOP legislators try to block federal money.”

Larivee referenced House Bill 422 sponsored by three Republican state representatives, claiming it would block “a $461 million federal grant to improve rail service between Raleigh and Charlotte, creating 4,800 jobs over the next two years.” She claimed the money “comes with no strings attached.”

I believe Larivee’s letter misled readers.

First, HB 422 prevents the N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) from applying for, accepting, or expending federal grant funds unless the project had been approved through an act of the General Assembly. Under current law, NCDOT is given unlimited authority to receive funds for rail programs from the federal government, and spend those funds, without legislative oversight.

HB 422 is not draconian! N.C. county commissioners must approve applications for state or federal grants before they are made by county departments. Why shouldn’t the same apply to state departments?

Gov. Perdue is proud of reorganizing DOT to remove political cronyism from its decision-making. Passing HB 422 would be another excellent way for her to bolster that goal.

Second, the Obama administration allotted $8 billion of its $862 billion stimulus program for high-speed rail projects. This stimulus spending has been one factor in adding around $3 trillion to our national debt in two years. The DOT grant is more borrowed federal money.

Third, the $545 million grant will not create 4,800 jobs in two years, as Larivee wrote. The DOT’s own press release from Aug. 10, 2010, on the award claims “It is estimated to create or maintain 4,800 private-sector jobs.” These are jobs over four years. Furthermore, the way the estimate was made counts one job which lasts four years as four jobs. How’s that for creative accounting?

Finally, Larivee says the money “comes with no strings attached.” There are strings. If the rail project turns out to be a failure, and is shut down, N.C. would be required to repay the $545 million. N.C. will also have to provide supplementary operating funds in perpetuity. This project could be our State’s Amtrack.

Governors and legislators in Florida, Wisconsin, and Ohio have declined the free federal high-speed rail grants totaling in excess of $3 billion. I would not be disappointed to see N.C. come to its senses and decline to use its grant.

Vic Drummond


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