by Jon Sanders
Research Editor and Senior Fellow, Regulatory Studies, John Locke Foundation
Count The New York Times among those ready to lament not constructing an enormously expensive fixed-line transit system between Duke and Chapel Hill. The newspaper’s opinion is front and center in its McClatchyeseque, our-idiot-readers-must-be-told-how-to-think headline, “Durham Dreamed of a Transit Line. Duke University All but Killed It.”
Duke is a villain not just for nixing the plan, but also for raising the idea that the costs of construction don’t include merely the taxpayer dollars that would be used for a 10-year construction project for something that would have very little ridership.
A dedicated reader, the sort print media don’t really expect nowadays, will endure 14 paragraphs comparing Duke with — I am not kidding here — police gasing and beating civil rights protesters, running a plantation, being an anathema to “liberal intelligentsia,” being dead set against green ideas and social justice, and being against the poor, before getting the university’s side of things:
They said construction vibration and electromagnetic interference from the trains might affect sensitive research equipment at Duke’s sprawling medical campus, which the train line would skirt. And they are concerned about the project’s impact on the underground utilities that serve the medical center — and the threat of new lawsuits.
It takes even longer for the NYT to get at other problems with the proposal:
Like many rail projects before it, this one is imperfect, and there are a number of opponents besides the university.
The proposed line would not go to the regional airport, for example, nor to Raleigh, although there are future plans for a heavy-rail connection to the capital. The cost of the light-rail line — to be borne by local, state and federal taxpayers — has ballooned beyond $3 billion.
John Morris, a member of a Chapel Hill residents’ group that opposes the train, said that new buses would be cheaper, and quicker to put in place.
“This light-rail project won’t even be on the ground for 10 years, and is gobbling up the lion’s share of our dedicated sales tax revenue that would be used for transit,” he said.
Some may recall how spitting mad The News & Observer editors were when Wake County wouldn’t join in Durham and Orange over the light rail. It didn’t matter how many transit experts — including light-rail advocates — said that this area wasn’t dense enough to support light rail and that busing was a better choice. (At last count, 76 transit planners and experts counseled Wake County to adopt other transit strategies.)
Incidentally, with busing, you can change routes depending upon changing needs in the community. Once you build a rail line, that’s the route. Take it or leave it. And most people leave it.
Now, with the onset of rider services like Uber and Lyft, there’s even less need for rail transit. It’s a 19th century solution with a 19th century authoritarian approach to a 21st century problem.
The NYT may write that the nation “appears to be of two minds about rail transit and its future role in a culture largely dominated by cars,” but in revealed preference it is not of two minds at all.