RALEIGH — The outgoing North Carolina Secretary of Transportation was dinged for wasteful spending involving the purchase of circus rail cars.
According to reports, the North Carolina Department of Transportation purchased nine old circus rail cars in 2017 for $383,000.
N.C. DOT’s Katie Trout responded saying the cars were supposed to be refurbished and put back into use as part of a strategic transportation initiative, but instead they have sat untouched for almost three years on a section of unused track owned by the state.
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican, tweeted about the story at the end of last week, suggesting mismanagement at the agency and questioning why the cars had not been sold off.
“DOT ran out of money to build roads, but was able to buy circus trains?” tweeted Forest, alluding to the N.C. DOT overspending its budget by $2 billion.
The question about running out of money goes back to October 2019 when State Treasurer Dale Folwell had called on Cooper to fire N.C. DOT Secretary Jim Trogdon due to the department spending $2 billion beyond its revenue stream of $7 billion and coming close to its bottom limit for cash reserves.
Trogdon, a Democrat, responded on Twitter, calling the accusations untrue and saying the cash flow issues were due to DOT spending on storm repairs.
Trogdon’s tweets notably landed just days before the swearing-in on Feb. 29 of his replacement, Eric Boyette. Trogdon’s abrupt resignation as secretary of the N.C. DOT was announced in early February by the governor. Trogdon was appointed by Cooper in January 2017 and had served in the role since.
The exchange between the two men continued, with Forest pressing Trogdon to explain why the cars had not been sold.
Forest referred to a News & Observer article in his tweet detailing legislative reaction to N.C. DOT’s overspending and lack of financial oversight. That circumstance resulted in a bailout given to the department by the General Assembly via S.B. 356. The bill gave the department the ability to borrow additional funds to deal with weather-related issues, giving the agency $100 million for road construction projects via bond issuance and another $100 million from the state’s general fund.
In addition to more funds, S.B. 356 required N.C. DOT to provide its weekly financial balances to the public in a report called “N.C. DOT Cash Watch Numbers.” N.C. DOT is also required to set specific monthly cash balance targets and explain to the General Assembly any time those targets are missed.
Trogdon also tweeted the claim that the purchase of the circus cars was the due to an “old strategy,” yet the cars were purchased well into Trogdon’s first year serving as DOT secretary. Trogdon ended that tweet by saying that Forest “generating controversy on this is clearly lacking leadership.”
Trogdon repeated the “old strategy” claim again, elaborating that these cars were supposed to be refurbished. Forest tweeted back that his comment was a “Nice attempt to deflect on DOT mismanagement. Sell circus train and get back to building roads.”
Trogdon ended the conversation by questioning who was running the lieutenant governor’s Twitter account and touting his own credentials.
NSJ asked Trogdon to clarify his remarks both about the old strategy and why the cars had not been sold and remained in their original condition.
He replied on Twitter: “Until grant was awarded end of 2019 state of good repair the Old cars were still needed because of future 5th frequency of train. Now they can be resold because all trains will have new cars not vintage rebuilds.”
NSJ attempted to ask for further clarification, specifically about the circus cars which were the topic of the tweet debate between Forest and Trogdon.
“9 were refurbished 2013-2016. These 12 would support future frequencies,” tweeted Trogdon.
However, the report was specific: there were nine cars purchased in 2017. Trogdon did not respond to the specific claim.
An inquiry was sent to the N.C. DOT asking about the refurbishment costs for the circus cars in question, and while the department did not respond by publication time, N.C. DOT Marketing Manager Katie Trout did confirm the refurbishment cost for these cars would have been approximately $3.5 million each.
According to the North Carolina State Treasurer’s Office, Folwell only found out about N.C. DOT acquiring the train cars after reading the Carolina Journal article on Feb. 24.
Folwell’s office could not confirm if N.C. DOT’s circus rail car purchase had ever been brought before the Council of State for a vote. If the item had been brought up, the Treasurer’s Office said that “the criteria, policies and processes are up to the governor as chair of the Council of State.”
This article has been updated to include a response from NC DOT regarding the rail car refurbishment cost.