This article was originally published in the Raleigh News & Observer, November 16, 2007 under the title "Buses, Not Trains".
When Charlotte voters recently rejected a repeal of their transit tax, various interests in the Triangle started salivating. Despite having been passed over for federal funds in 2005, Triangle advocates are again becoming hopeful about light rail. Indeed, if you put your ear to the ground, you can here a rumbling at the end of the tracks.
”A three-county citizen panel has begun to focus on two competing scenarios for creating a regional network of trains,” writes Bruce Siceloff recently in the News & Observer, citing proposals that include everything from commuter- and light rail to busways. But what we’re really talking about, again, is light rail. Yet is the idea of commuter rail just linear thinking?
Light rail has become a multi-faceted symbol of being a “world-class city,” of congestion relief, and of environmental stewardship. In reality, however, it’s none of the above: Aspirations to world-class status hide an underlying elitism. Facts about light rail’s relative eco-friendliness suggest a project that’s less than green And the notion that it significantly eases traffic? I’ll let you be the judge.
First you have to ask: why not buses? If you really want to move people around in tubes, buses achieve the same result (plus environmental benefits)—and yet they’re more flexible when it comes to changes in routing, frequency, and upgrades. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) means nice, cushy buses, too. And these would cost one-tenth of light rail.
Yet most urban Tar Heels simply fancy themselves as too good to ride a bus.
“‘I am never going to get on a bus in my entire life, but I used trains every day when I lived in Baltimore and Washington,” says transplant Ruth Henry, quoted in the Charlotte Observer. “I am totally on board for using tax dollars to build trains.”
While BRT is greener, far less expensive, more flexible – and arguably as comfortable – a pervasive mentality one might call snobbery makes people abandon their sense that things cost money. If rail advocates are being honest, isn’t hostility towards buses a status issue? Most of us are not so bourgeois as to require non-cost-effective commuter lines to get to work. We drive our cars. But the prevailing narrative says cars are the problem. If we have light rail, we’ll decrease congestion and pollution, which will make it worthwhile.
UNC-Charlotte transportation expert David Hartgen estimates Charlotte’s system will reduce traffic congestion by three percent at most – but only for about a year or so. Over the long term, if Charlotte’s 2030 Plan is fully implemented, 60 percent of total transportation spending in Mecklenburg County will be devoted to just 2 percent of area trips. Juxtapose this with Civitas policy analyst Brian Balfour’s observation:
“There’ll be an additional 250,000 residents along the North Line corridor by 2030, but only 4,600 daily light rail riders; the remaining 245,400 will apparently have to battle each other on neglected roads”.
As of 2006, the South Corridor Line’s costs came to $462.7 million, up from a 1998 estimate of $227 million. Were it not for state and federal subsidies the Triangle won’t qualify for, the South Corridor Line would already have cost every man, woman and child in Mecklenburg County $560.00. That’s $2,240 per family-of-four to subsidize a line only one percent of the population will use. If the cost of $462.7 million were only to be borne by 6,000 daily riders, the cost comes to $77,116 per rider. Project that out over ten years, assume 6,000 riders make 260 round trips annually, and the South Corridor’s construction cost comes to $29.66 per day, per rider. (This assumes away inflation and all future operating costs.)
This kind of let-them-eat-cake planning should cause us to check our scruples—particularly when there are rural North Carolinians who will also have to bankroll any gilded trolley the Triangle may get.
What about environmental impacts? While we’re treated almost daily to reports about pollution violations during summer, pollution from cars has fallen on nearly every single metric since the 1960s—despite a tripling of cars. Violations of EPA ozone standards still occur. But then EPA lowers standards perennially so they can keep their jobs. So what would be the effect on pollution of a 1-to-3 percent decrease in vehicle use (even pretending light rail emits no pollution)?
According to the Cato Institute’s urban-planning expert Randall O’Toole, the “majority of light-rail systems consume more energy-per-passenger-mile than the average passenger car.” Things get worse when one factors buses out of the system—worse still when one factors in the energy used to construct a line.
Like a religious totem, light rail has become an article of faith that draws in people eager to worship at the altar of smart growth. But if we’re really smart, we’ll commit the sin of cost-benefit analysis.