The governor’s Johnston County turnaround

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There’s a good reason governors often struggle holding on to their office or moving up: They have to make very tough decisions while the Washington D.C. senators spend their time making speeches.

That’s obvious from Gov. Pat McCrory’s quick turnaround on CSX’s plan to place a $272 million plant in Johnston County that would speed the transportation of goods from the North Carolina ports to rail cars and trucks.

The project fits perfectly with McCrory’s repeated support for improved connections between Interstate 95 and the ports and his many speeches extolling the virtues of long-range transportation planning in a fast-growing state. When it was announced on Jan. 12, McCrory praised the project as an economic development winner.

But McCrory was supporting CSX’s plan before checking the local pulse of Johnston County. Key landowners there have no interest in selling their property to the railroad, even if the project has great economic potential for eastern North Carolina. They immediately turned to their elected officials, who have quickly denounced the project as a land grab foisted on the county without enough transparency. Not in my back yard!

On Tuesday McCrory said he didn’t think the project location was viable and said he would work with CSX to find another site. That will be interesting because CSX officials have repeatedly said they didn’t want to look elsewhere in Johnston County.

Railroads have been fighting land battles for more than a century, so the CSX honchos at the Jacksonville, Fla. headquarters probably aren’t too surprised by the ruckus. Like ’em or hate ‘em, railroads tend to get their way. If they didn’t, the U.S. economy would be mightily stunted. The railroads also may have the law on their side to push through the project, given North Carolina’s rules on eminent domain.

For McCrory, supporting the project would clearly enrage the conservatives who dominate Johnston County politics. Blocking eminent-domain land deals, and protecting property rights, rank among the highest priorities of many conservatives.

And McCrory can’t afford to anger any more Republicans than necessary. He’s already facing a major uprising in the heavily conservative areas north of Charlotte over the N.C. Department of Transportation’s contract permitting toll lanes on Interstate 77. So far the governor has stuck with the Charlotte Chamber and DOT Chairman Ned Curran and resisted calls for him to block the contract with Ferrovial SA, the toll-lane developer.

But that stance may cost McCrory several thousand reliably Republican votes in north Mecklenburg and Iredell counties in the November election. That’s a big risk, which he clearly does not want to see compounded by another revolt in Johnston County.

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