Wake County commissioners have declined to put a tax hike for transit on the ballot, while Orange County voters will decide the half-cent transit tax question in November. A key claim of rail supporters is that it will reduce traffic congestion. But does the data show that would be the case? JLF’s recently retired director of research, Michael Sanera, looks at that congestion-reducing claim in this piece.

Orange County voters will decide in November whether to raise taxes on themselves to help “invest” $1.4 billion toward construction of 17 miles of transit line that would have a miniscule impact on traffic congestion and air pollution. 

Transit supporters don’t highlight this fact. A draft plan written by the area’s transit and regional planning agencies provides glowing verbiage about rail transit’s benefits. “These investments would positively impact traffic congestion,” it proclaims.

But promises of a “positive impact” on congestion have not panned out in other cities that have wasted billions of taxpayer dollars on rail transit. Of the 33 U.S. cities with some form of rail transit, only six account for more than 1 percent of the passenger miles traveled in the region, and 22 carry less than one-half of 1 percent. Does Orange County want to be like San Jose, where rail makes up 0.42 percent of passenger miles traveled? How about Denver (0.44 percent) or Dallas (0.26 percent)?

Perhaps North Carolina is better-suited to rail transit. Some cite Charlotte as a great rail success story that Orange County should follow. But Charlotte’s light rail cost about $561 million — more than double the initial estimates — and accounts for a whopping 0.07 percent of all passenger miles traveled in the region. Has that “investment” significantly reduced traffic congestion and air quality? Hardly.