The General Assembly kills the Triangle's light rail plans
N.C. Governor's Office

It was around eight years ago, during Charlotte light rail opponents’ efforts to scuttle the local half-cent sales tax for transit—still the most egregious example I’ve ever seen of cutting off your nose to spite your mayor—when I first realized people could object to mass transit on ideological grounds.

Practical grounds I could understand: the routes are going the wrong way, the funding mechanism is wrong, etc. But when you examined their objections closely, you realized these folks were not really objecting to the specifics of the planned light rail line through South End, and certainly not recommending a workable alternative. They largely opposed the idea of publicly funded transportation. This seemed silly to me, like objecting on principle to sewer systems or fire departments. It still does.

So we come to the latest North Carolina budget, ramrodded through with minimal debate by a super-majority Republican legislature, and discover this unexpected nugget (from Bruce Siceloff at the N&O):

The new state budget proposal deals a crippling blow to a planned $1.5 billion light-rail line from Durham to Chapel Hill, with a provision that would put a $500,000 limit on state funding for any light-rail project …

Charlotte launched North Carolina’s first light-rail line eight years ago, with the state covering 25 percent of the construction cost. Triangle leaders have been counting on comparable support when their turn comes.

The prospect of a light-rail cap never came up when House and Senate leaders developed their separate budgets this year. The Republican-led legislature previously had clamped broader restrictions on funding for transit projects.

GoTriangle, the regional transit agency that wants to build the 17-mile Durham-Orange rail line, secured approval for $138 million in state funds this year when the state Board of Transportation approved the 10-year State Transportation Improvement Program.

But prospects for actually getting that money were cast in doubt when House and Senate Republican leaders released their budget Monday night with no explanation for the new cap. Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt called the half-million-dollar cap a “project killer.”

Legislative leaders have offered no explanation for the limit. Gov. McCrory, Charlotte’s mayor and a champion of the city’s light rail line eight years ago, has objected to the cap but said he plans to sign the budget bill into law anyway.

The Triangle area, like the Charlotte MSA, is one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the United States. Capping the state allocation at $500,000 effectively kills the project. So what’s behind this?

At the root of it is a marriage of libertarian ideology and myopia, the unwillingness to regard public investment as anything but an affront to the free market.

David Weigel, then of Slate and now of The Washington Post, wrote about this a few years back with the same tone of confused wonderment. Conservative opponents of new rail systems, he wrote, “have two fiscal problems. One: The new lines will run over budget, because they always run over budget. Two: Not enough people will ever, ever ride them to make the numbers work.”

The first point is undoubtedly true. All large infrastructure projects run over budget. But to make a fair comparison, you’d have to compare the cost of building rail lines to the cumulative cost, over decades, of not building them: time wasted in traffic, road improvements that further snarl traffic and reach capacity a few years after completion, and lack of economic growth because of lack of public investment. Those things are almost impossible to measure because they occur over multiple years; it’s also hard to measure a negative. That doesn’t mean the effects, or lack of them, aren’t real.

The second point is a cousin of the first. When opponents of rail transit claim ridership levels will never “make the numbers work,” they’re referring solely to rail’s benefits as a mode of transportation, ignoring the demonstrated potential for economic development and connections within cities that widened roads and dedicated bus lanes simply don’t provide.

To get an idea of the opposition’s reasoning in North Carolina, look to—what else?—the Civitas Institute, which offers these arguments: The market isn’t demanding light rail; it’s useless to plan for the future because you can’t predict it; the Triangle isn’t dense enough to warrant it; and Googling “light rail” and “boondoggle” generates a lot of hits. (Really.)

Well, by that logic, why build anything bigger than a two-car garage? Just let the free market take care of the transportation system based on need.

The problem, of course, is that once the need arises, it’s already decades too late, which is one reason the public sector builds transportation systems. Another reason is that, because of mass transit’s aforementioned costs, the private sector is ill-equipped to invest the necessary time and money on a project that may not produce return for decades—and when it does, the benefits will reach everyone, not just investors.

That’s if you consider them benefits. If you look at things a certain way, there’s a logic to slowly depriving cities of the scaffolding they need and rerouting resources to folks in the country. But surely that can’t be what’s afoot in Raleigh. That would require planning.

Categories: The Buzz