by Jim Tynen
A few days a week, I ride a Triangle Transit 301 bus to and from the palatial Civitas HQ in the Warehouse District of Raleigh. But even as a transit rider, my blood runs cold when I hear government planners are plotting ways to throw taxpayers’ money into light-rail systems and commuter rail boondoggles all over North Carolina.
Triangle leaders are pushing light-rail plans here. Meanwhile, Charlotte is spending at least $1 billion on a light-rail extension, and wants to spend another $3 billion on a grab bag of additional light-rail and commuter rail schemes. Plus, Gov. Pat McCrory has a 25-year transportation blueprint that includes plans to “expand access to public transportation options for people in all regions of the state.” (Emphasis added.)
Here’s why the state should derail these plans:
1. There’s no big groundswell of demand for mass transit. Census reports show that only 5 percent of Americans take mass transit, and the bulk of them are in crowded Eastern urban areas. Even there, mass transit remains a money pit.
2. Light rail is an especially egregious example of this failure. Google “light rail” and “boondoggle,” and you’ll get more than 39,000 hits, most detailing how light-rail has flopped in city after city, all across the fruited plain.
Those who disagree are invited to send in examples of where light rail has lived up to its budget and ridership hype. Prize to the first submission: a genuine Civitas ballpoint pen.
3. Light rail is especially ill-suited for the Triangle. “The [Triangle area] commuter rail plan and the light-rail plan just don’t make sense to me,” transit expert John Pucher, a Rutgers University professor, told Triangle Transit officials in 2013. According to news reports, he summed it up by saying, “It’s just so difficult in this very decentralized, very sprawled metropolitan area.”
Those sentiments were echoed later that year when Wake County commissioners sought the opinions of three transit experts. In the Triangle and elsewhere, North Carolina just doesn’t have the crowded urban areas where mass transit might be more feasible – and it never will.
4. Planners don’t know what we’ll need in future decades. Did anyone in North Carolina in 1985 correctly predict what the state would look like in 2015? So how do bureaucrats think they can make plans based on predictions of what our area will look like in 2045, or 2145?
5. Rail systems are permanent fixtures in a rapidly changing world. Buses can be rerouted as a city changes; rail lines can’t be moved. Buses can be bought or sold; rail lines require the investment of hundreds of millions before a single rider pays a fare.
Discussing various transit plans in news accounts, Dan Jewell, president of Durham Area Designers, admitted that “any changes we make will likely be here 100 years from now.” How can we invest billions on such a gamble?
6. Light rail will spawn more government meddling in local communities. As Friedrich Hayek showed, planning always fails. To cover their failures, bureaucrats must resort to further meddling, which causes more problems, creating a vicious cycle.
For example, in Durham, planners are already fretting that light rail will result in gentrification. “Durham elected officials set a goal that at least 15 percent of housing within a half-mile of each transit station be affordable to residents at or below 60 percent of the median area income,” the news media reported. In other words, light rail will be an excuse for planners to monkey with the housing market, and who knows what else.
Light rail in a host of ways would wreak havoc on communities and businesses in North Carolina for decades, and we would all be paying the fare for it for years.
—Jim Tynen is communications director of the Civitas Institute in Raleigh.