John Locke Update / Research Newsletter

Rail consensus deniers desperately want a white elephant for Wake

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On the eve of his birth, the mother of Buddha dreamed that a white elephant presented her with a lotus flower, a sign of wisdom and purity. Throughout history a white elephant was regarded in Buddhist kingdoms as a symbol of divine blessing.

"The white elephant, according to ancient royal Thai tradition, exemplifies the king’s honor and glory," wrote Joachim Schliesinger in Elephants in Thailand Vol. 3: White Elephants in Thailand and Neighboring Countries. "A white elephant is a gift fit for a king and for a king to acquire one during his reign will bring prosperity and happiness throughout the kingdom."

As sacred symbols of divine favor (and whose death symbolized its removal), the elephants were treated like royalty and not made to work as other elephants were.

There is tension, however, between this veneration of the white elephant and how it was regarded by English travel writers. Since at least the early 17th century a "white elephant" has been an English idiom for:

a valuable but burdensome possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost — particularly the expense of caring for it — is out of proportion to its usefulness. In short: "a possession that is useless or troublesome" (Oxford English Dictionary).

How did this come about? As Schliesinger explained,

it derives from the practice of the earlier kings of Siam to give rare, auspicious elephants to ambitious courtiers. So great was the honor and so prestigious the gift, that they would have no choice but to look after the animal. However, the unwilling owner would soon be ruined by the enormous cost of looking after it, with its insatiable demand for bananas and sugar cane.

In short, a white elephant was a sign from above of great prosperity and happiness, but in practical terms its possession resulted the loss of both, such a great and inescapable drain on resources it was.

That summation sounds inordinately like the light rail debate in Wake County.

‘Wake County cannot move forward’ without one

Venerated by some, including especially the editors of The News & Observer, light rail is envisioned as a symbol of Raleigh’s ascent into the pantheon of World Class Cities. Its lack is a constant source of their irritation.

Nevertheless, numerous transportation experts — six different experts in the space of two years — made it abundantly clear that the practical effects of light rail in this area would be an economic disaster. That impressive consensus among transportation experts, which N&O editors declaim as "tired," is this:

The Triangle area, including Wake County, is too decentralized, too spread out, and not nearly population-dense enough to support expensive light rail.

This tension reached absurd proportions within the pages of the N&O earlier this week. On January 26, transportation news writer Bruce Siceloff reported on the "transit rethink guided by a new county manager with transit experience, Jim Hartmann, and Oregon transit consultant Jarrett Walker."

Siceloff reported:

Walker carved the 70-member Wake County Transit Plan Advisory Committee into nine groups, asking each to draft a transit plan for a county that will grow from 1 million residents this year to an expected 1.2 million in 2025.

He gave them a budget to work with, based on expected receipts from that half-penny tax. A light-rail line would consume half of that budget, he said.

Each of the nine groups called for more bus service. There was an emphasis on running buses every 15 minutes on Hillsborough Street, Capital Boulevard from downtown to Wake Forest, New Bern Avenue, South Saunders Street, Glenwood Avenue and other major routes.

Five also provided for more expensive bus rapid transit service. And seven of the nine included money for the Durham-to-Garner commuter trains.

None of the nine groups recommended light rail in their transit plans for Wake County. They said Wake couldn’t afford it.

"It had nothing to do with whether you were — like me — a big proponent of light rail," said Will Allen III of Raleigh, a Triangle Transit board member who took part in the session. "When faced with the challenge of having a finite budget in today’s world, we all decided we could get more bang for our buck by spending the money on other modes (of transportation)."

Nevertheless, that very same day the N&O editorialized that "Wake commissioners should focus on future." The editors’ top priority? Mass transit, especially light rail:

Wake County cannot move forward if its people and visitors cannot travel by means other than automobiles. An urban county — and Wake is fast becoming one — must be knit together by a range of transit options including a strong bus system, light rail and commuter rail.

Roads simply cannot absorb the rate of growth in population and traffic. Wake has already lost precious years of transit funding, planning and development as previous boards debated whether there was enough "density" for mass transit. Now Wake has to catch up even as Orange and Durham counties are already collecting light-rail taxes and planning routes. That means getting a transit tax on the 2016 ballot, selling the tax and rolling from there.

Rail Consensus Denial demands that density be placed in scare quotes, apparently. Note also the pretense that the debate was merely among "previous boards" and given the further straw man that it was over "mass transit" in general.

Still, the consensus of now 76 transit experts and planners is that Wake County can’t afford light rail. Like the kings of Siam, the editors would burden others with the ruinous cost of their useless object of reverence.

The owners of actual white elephants couldn’t afford the honor and faced financial ruin by the beasts’ insatiable demand for bananas. The N&O’s insatiable demand for resource-devouring light rail in Wake County is bananas.

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Jon Sanders studies regulatory policy, a veritable kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As Director of Regulatory Studies at the John Locke Foundation, Jon gets into the weeds in all kinds of policy areas, including electricity, occupational licensing, hydraulic… ...

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