What a circus: NCDOT unloads final Ringling Bros. railcars at a loss

Sale of railcars leaves NCDOT over $327K in the hole

Image of former Ringling Bros. train cars via Nash County Sheriff's Office.

RALEIGH — The N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) has finally sold off the railcars that originally belonged to the Ringling Bros. circus.

The circus railcars were supposed to be refurbished per former NCDOT Secretary Jim Trogdon, but that apparently never happened.

Instead of being refurbished, they sat idle on tracks in Nash County. While sitting on those tracks, four had to be scrapped after the cars caught fire. The Nash County Sheriff’s Office has indicated the fires were acts of arson.

Of the surviving railcars, two sold for a total of $26,301 and three sold for a combined $28,750.

Given the NCDOT paid $383,000 for the nine railcars in 2017, that’s a loss of $327,949.

The cars became a topic of discussion years after the actual purchase, at a time when overspending by NCDOT had become an issue.

In 2020, then-Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and Trogdon got into a heated exchange on Twitter over the purchase.

“DOT ran out of money to build roads, but was able to buy circus trains?” Forest had tweeted.

Forest’s tweet was a reference to the fact N.C. Treasurer Dale Folwell had called out NCDOT for having spent $2 billion beyond its $7 billion revenue stream as well as coming dangerously close to hitting its bottom limit for cash reserves.

The exchange between Forest and Trogdon took place just days before the swearing-in on Feb. 29 of Trogdon’s replacement, Eric Boyette. Trogdon’s surprise resignation was announced by Gov. Roy Cooper in early February 2020. Trogdon was appointed by Cooper in January 2017.

Trogdon’s short stint as NCDOT secretary left the department in fiscal disarray, prompting legislative hearings.

Two separate audits revealed mismanagement of salary increases of $39 million and exceeding its $5.94 billion 2019 fiscal year budget by $742 million, or 12.5%. The shortfall combined with COVID-19 issues resulted in $2 billion in cuts to construction projects and department-wide furloughs.

In response to this article’s focus on the financial loss taken on the railcars – one that is ultimately paid for by state taxpayers – Trogdon tweeted a version of a quote from former President Theodore Roosevelt.

Trogdon - circus railcars - ncdot

About A.P. Dillon 834 Articles
A.P. Dillon is a North State Journal reporter located near Raleigh, North Carolina. Find her on Twitter: @APDillon_