October 17, 2016

RALEIGH — Wake County taxpayers could be saddled with a multibillion-dollar bill for an expanded transit system that fails to meet most people’s needs. That’s if Wake voters approve a half-cent sales tax increase on the Nov. 8 ballot. A new John Locke Foundation Spotlight report examines that ballot measure.

“Lots of people think public transit sounds like a great idea for other people, even though they don’t want to use it themselves,” said report author Julie Tisdale, John Locke Foundation City and County Policy Analyst. “Buses and trains aren’t as comfortable or convenient as a car, but those options seem wonderful for other people.”

“Until significant numbers of people across Wake County are using the existing transit system, taxpayers should not be asked to foot the bill for an expanded system that will be underutilized, inconvenient, and expensive,” Tisdale added.

Wake County voters will approve or reject an additional 0.5 percent sales tax rate increase “to be used only for public transportation systems.” Money generated from that sales tax hike would help fund the Wake County Transit Plan, Tisdale said.

“That plan is enormous,” she said. “It calls for spending $2.3 billion over 10 years to build commuter rail lines and Bus Rapid Transit. It also would increase the number and frequency of regular bus lines and connect every municipality in the county through transit.”

Much debate about the Wake plan involves a 37-mile commuter rail line extending from Wake into Durham County. “Wake deserves credit for rejecting a light-rail option that would have required construction of new train tracks, but commuter rail is still expensive,” Tisdale said. “It is also unlikely to deliver the sort of benefits to commuters that supporters hope to see.”

Tisdale points specifically to an estimate comparing a commuter rail trip between Durham and Raleigh to a 5 p.m. drive on Interstate 40 and N.C. 147. “The plan says a drive at that time could last between 35 and 80 minutes, while the commuter rail trip would last 45 minutes,” she said. “It fails to note that the 45-minute travel time counts only the train trip. The plan says nothing about travel from home to the train station or from the train station to work or another destination.”

“With stations placed up to five miles apart, this additional travel time could be significant,” Tisdale added. “Any time advantage that commuter rail might have offered would be greatly reduced if not eliminated entirely.”

These calculations also ignore the convenience factor for commuters who shop or pick up children on the way home from work, Tisdale said. “So while commuter rail may appeal to a small number of people whose homes and offices are very near train stations, for most it will remain a slower, less convenient form of transportation.”

Bus Rapid Transit faces similar problems since it requires fixed stations and dedicated bus lanes, Tisdale said. “BRT promises to be quicker and more convenient than traditional buses, but it’s also much more costly,” she said. “Building fixed stations and dedicated lanes costs far more than putting a bus on an existing road. It’s also likely that dedicated bus lanes would replace lanes for cars, leading to more congestion for drivers.”

BRT also poses a longer-term problem, Tisdale added. “A great advantage of buses is their flexibility,” she explained. “It’s easy to change routes as communities grow, develop, and change. This is not possible with a system depending on set routes, dedicated lanes, and fixed stations.”

Tisdale focuses attention on long-term costs. Planners expect the new half-cent sales tax to generate 36 percent of the Wake transit plan’s funding over the next 10 years. Other federal, state, and local government sources would cover most of the rest of the bill.

“Just 4 percent of the funding is expected to come from riders,” Tisdale said. “Contrast this with most businesses, which depend on customers to generate all revenue. It’s important to note that there is no expectation that riders ever will contribute a significant amount to transit system finances. The long-term plan is for taxpayers to subsidize 96 percent of the transit system’s costs.”

A particularly questionable piece of Wake County’s plan involves transit services for areas of the county with low demand, Tisdale said. “Some routes are designed to ensure every corner of the county is covered, even if use of those routes is minimal,” she said. “It is difficult to see how a bus route to an area without a lot of people that runs infrequently and only during peak hours offers much value.”

Ridership numbers for the existing Wake transit system offer little reason for optimism about expansion, Tisdale said. “The transit plan tells us that 66 percent of jobs and 41 of people already fall within three-fourths of a mile of an existing bus stop,” she said. “Yet ridership numbers are extremely low. And there’s no evidence within the plan that ridership will grow substantially.”

The Wake County Transit Plan appears more “aspirational” than practical, Tisdale said. “If the goal is to make Wake County look like a progressive, ‘connected’ community with at least token bus service to every municipality, then the plan will do nicely,” she said. “If the goal really is to get people where they need to be when they need to be there, then the plan falls far short.”

Julie Tisdale’s Spotlight report, “Wake County Recommends Transit Plan to Nowhere,” is available at the JLF website. For more information, please contact Tisdale at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].