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Light rail in Wake County, the hotdog tree of broken dreams

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In some circles, it is thought that for a community to be said to truly exist, it must be World Class. It is assumed that all communities aspire to be World Class Communities, no matter the cost. What brings a WCC to life, like the magician’s hat to Frosty the Snowman, is light rail transit.

For a metropolitan area not to be a WCC is for it to be an afterthought, a regional castoff, a villa of bumpkins on the verge of downtown tractor pulls (if not downtown hair pulls) who will never ever host an Olympics or even a national political convention. It’s like hell for communities, the kind of hell where people are generally content and happy, other than the enlightened choochoorati and neglected handful of would-be riders.

It has long been a dream of Wake County planners, rail romantics, Smart Growth fans, and media interests that Wake County would adopt light rail transit. So when a panel of outside experts came in and reiterated the obvious but disenchanting fact that no, the area is not nearly dense enough to make rail transit at all feasible, they were crestfallen.

The disappointment was as evident as the quivering pout on the face of a three-year-old told that no, honey, you can’t grow a hotdog tree by planting Red Hots, please stop wasting them.

Last week three outside transportation experts participated in a panel for Wake County commissioners on the subject of the county’s long-range transit plan. Neighboring Durham and Orange counties have recently put additional pressure on Wake to join them in rail transit by passing half-cent transit sales taxes, but Wake’s leaders have resisted. Rail transit advocates see Wake as the missing link, the holdout, the stick-in-the-mud, the wet blanket.

From what commissioners heard, they’ve been the responsible adults all along.

A very disappointed News & Observer reported that a panelist said

Wake won’t be ready for trains until it has heavier urban density, worse traffic jams and more people riding buses who could be expected to ride trains later. … Wake County was not likely to attract the federal funding it would need for a light rail line, and it doesn’t have a dense downtown employment center that would support rush-hour commuter trains.

The verdicts were so uniform, it seems, that the three were moved to explain "they had not shared notes in advance."

Commissioner Paul Coble, whose rail reluctance earned him the N&O’s worst printable invective (I don’t know what an "archconservative" is, Mabel, but hold me; I’m scared), heard vindication from the panelists:

"What I’m hearing them say is: What you did was wise," Commissioner Paul Coble of Raleigh said later. "Don’t rush into it just because it’s the thing to do. Understand what you’re going to do and what it’s going to cost you."

To be sure, it wasn’t the first time commissioners had heard that. Last March, a planning expert praised the Wake County commissioners for having "done the right thing" by not putting a transit tax on the ballot. That expert was John Pucher, a professor in the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who has over 40 years’ experience in transportation planning. At the time Pucher was a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the Department of City and Regional Planning.

Pucher, who "supports alternative modes of transportation," also took the region’s density into consideration. "It’s just so difficult in this very decentralized, very sprawled metropolitan area," he said.

In 2012, two transportation experts, David T. Hartgen and Thomas A. Rubin, also cautioned Wake County about its rail transit plans. Among their many other findings, including very high costs per rail rider trip, per rider, and per passenger mile, was this:

The proposed Commuter Rail and Light Rail services are inappropriate for a region of this size and density. The region’s density is lower than all but three of the 34 regions now operating rail transit service.

Density isn’t a problem for the N&O. With costs, experts, and geographic factors all conspiring against the region’s ascent into light rail heaven, they tried out several alternate arguments. These included an appeal to peer pressure — everybody [Durham and Orange] is doing it! — and attacking Coble and other commissioners for being political ideologues and cowards who probably want to turn roads into parking lots (you know, since doing nothing about light rail means doing nothing about transportation, period).

My two favorites included one that tried to make a negative out of expert consensus:

Critics merely rolled out the same tired reason for doing little: The region isn’t crowded enough to supply passengers for light rail and commuter trains. (Emphasis added.)

The other one granted that tired reason and then applied even more peer pressure:

It may be true that this region currently lacks the density needed to support different kinds of mass transit, but that’s been an argument in other cities that went ahead anyway.

What’s the regional version of the responsible adult’s retort to this appeal? If Durham and Orange County voted themselves off a cliff, would you do it, too?

Pending that, let the John Locke Foundation’s City and County Issue Guide suffice. An entry on Public Transit discussed these other cities and warned against the "romance of rail." It included this graph comparing the rail and motor vehicle shares of all passenger travel in several major metropolitan areas. Please note that each city has two bars, one for rail and one for motor vehicles. It’s just that the rail share bars are so infinitesimal that you might miss them. The average for rail is, after all, only 1.15 percent.

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Jon Sanders is an economist studying state regulations, that spreading kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As director of regulatory studies and research editor at the John Locke Foundation, Jon gets in the weeds of all kinds of policy… ...

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