On Sept. 18, Triangle residents awoke to news that the long-planned, 17-mile light-rail project connecting Durham and Orange counties was effectively dead. Worse, nobody knew who killed it.

Things had been chugging along nicely for light rail. The financing planwhich called for 25 percent from the counties, 25 percent from the state and 50 percent from the fedswas on track. Voters in Durham and Orange had levied a half-cent sales tax to cover their share. The state had chipped in a quarter of the cost of Charlotte’s light-rail system and was expected to do the same for this project. The N.C. Department of Transportation had committed $138 million.

From there, it was a matter of getting the feds on board. That was looking up, too: Earlier that week in September, the project was awarded a $1.7 million developmental grant from the Federal Transit Administration.

Then the state budget arrived.

It was supposed to land on Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk by July 1, but House and Senate Republicans couldn’t reach an agreement. They spent 11 additional weeks arguing about it, passing three stopgap spending measures to accommodate the delay. Finally, a bill was produced. It was quickly passed by the Legislature and signed by McCrory.

Inside that 429-page budget bill, though, was a tiny provision that capped state spending on light-rail projects at a paltry $500,000. This meant that the DOT could no longer contribute the $138 million it had promised to the Durham-Orange County line. It also destabilized the request to the federal government; the feds like to know a project has its other funding secured before delivering the big money.

The provision had never been brought up for any kind of public debate, and not a single House or Senate Republican claimed credit for inserting it into the budget. It just appeared at the last minute, out of nowhere, and became law.

None of the local legislators representing the districts through which the light-rail project would pass were notified about the $500,000 cap during the backroom negotiations that produced the budget. But four separate Democratic lawmakers told the INDY last week that they believe they know who slipped the cap into the bill.

“My understanding is that [Speaker Tim Moore’s] chief of staff is the one responsible,” says Graig Meyer, D-Hillsborough.

Another Democrat in the Legislature, speaking on the condition of anonymity, says, “I have zero doubt in my mind whatsoever that it was [the Speaker’s chief of staff].”

The source adds that lawmakers heard from Republicans on the conference committee that Rep. David R. Lewis of Harnett County, the chairman of the rules committee and a lead budget negotiator, came to the GOP caucus at the 11th hour and told them the cap had to go in. The Republicans took that directive as if it had come from the speaker.

Moore’s chief of staffand the man Democrats believe convinced Moore to insert the capis Clayton Somers. Formerly the executive director of the N.C. Turnpike Authority, Somers makes $158,500 per year as Moore’s top aide. He also lives in a community adjacent to Downing Creek, a well-heeled pocket of Chapel Hill that has loudly opposed light rail.

Under the light-rail plan, four street-level crossings would be created at intersections along Highway 54 near Downing Creek so that trains could pass through. Upon learning that light rail would interrupt highway access, residents of Downing Creek mobilized in opposition. They cited, among other things, traffic congestion, noise and a lack of dedicated parking as reasons why the project should not go forward in their neighborhood. They created a website challenging GoTriangle’s planning assumptions, started an online petition and had anti-light-rail op-eds published in The News & Observer. Signs opposing light rail dotted the front yards of Downing Creek homes.

Somers declined to comment for this story. He did, however, email a short statement attributed to Moore.

“Neither I nor my staff inserted any provision in the budget regarding the light-rail project,” it says.

Of course, if it’s true that Lewis inserted the provision at the behest of Moore’s office, this statement would be technically accurate but nonetheless misleading. (Lewis, who over the weekend defeated a tea party attempt to oust him from his role as a Republican National Committeeman, did not return calls seeking comment.)

In any event, it’s hard to imagine that Moore doesn’t know who’s responsible. But even after the provision’s existence came to light, the public remained in the dark. That’s a problem.

The deeply undemocratic process that allows a mystery person to derail years of research, planning and careful adherence to the bureaucratic process is worth noting here. Roughly, it unfolds like this: The House passes a budget plan and sends it to the Senate. The Senate doesn’t like it, comes up with its own budget and sends it back to the House. At that point the House speaker (Moore) and the Senate president pro tem (Phil Berger) appoint lawmakers to a conference committee tasked with negotiating a budget agreement.

The speaker and the president designate a handful of lawmakers to lead these negotiations. These are the individuals who end up doing the horsetrading. Once a compromise is reached, there’s no further discussion, just an up-or-down vote. And that’s how things like the light-rail cap sneak into a budget bill.

As Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, puts it: “The final negotiations on the budget are hammered out by a very small group of senior legislators from the majority party, and very few senators and state reps have any say in those negotiations, even if what comes out of it affects their district.”

Following the cap’s disclosure, several Republican lawmakers, including powerful Wake County Rep. Paul Stam, publicly condemned the surreptitious move. The House voted to repeal it, but that measure stalled in the Senate. Transit advocates hope the Senate will follow through on repealing it in this year’s short session. McCrory, who pushed light rail as mayor of Charlotte, would likely support the repeal.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that there are lawmakers who may not be great fans of mass transit but are nevertheless offended about the way this language was put into the budget,” says Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham. “We have a merit-based system for evaluating our transportation needs in North Carolina. It’s meant to depoliticize that process. And moves like this put the politics right back in.”

Meyer says he asked Moore last September who inserted the cap into the budget and why. “He said he’d been hearing complaints from Orange County about light rail,” Meyer says. “Then he said to me, ‘I think your constituents will be happy,’ and gave me a knowing smile. It wasn’t a forum where I could say what I wanted to say back to him. So I just smiled back. It was pure gamesmanship on his part. And there wasn’t anything we could do about it.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Who killed light rail?”