This article originally appeared in the Greensboro News & Record.
Look out! You’re about to be hit by a train. You’ll probably rarely, if ever, ride Charlotte’s LYNX system or the Triangle’s proposed light rail, but you’ll pay for them. Town planners, politicians, citizen activists and other special interests are gearing up to soak you for their urban transit. Much like the exorbitant pyramids built by Egyptians who used slave labor, shiny new transit projects will be constructed on the backs of smaller-town North Carolina taxpayers.
The Triangle’s latest proposal is an ambitious two-line plan that would service Chapel Hill, Durham, Cary and North Raleigh for a combined estimated cost of $2 billion-plus. How will they pay for it? According to the Raleigh News & Observer, 50 percent would be paid by the counties being served, 25 percent by the state and 25 percent by the federal government (i.e., folks in Kentucky and Alaska). That means they’ll be soaking the rest of North Carolina’s residents (you and me) for $500 million. And that’s today’s estimate. Charlotte’s light rail ended up costing three times original estimates.
But it’s not a great deal for most Triangle denizens either. Those who live in Wake, Orange and Durham Counties — though they will rarely have occasion to take light rail — will still get stuck with $1 billion of the tab. That’s because those Triangle counties are likely to model their revenue sources after Charlotte, which introduced a half-cent sales tax to pay for its light rail.
Half a cent? Doesn’t sound like much. But it’s about $38 per household per year on average for a Wake County household — 99 percent of which will never have occasion to use these lines and will "benefit" from only about a 1 percent reduction in traffic (and only for about a year, because of continuing population growth), according to transportation expert David Hartgen.
No buses, please
Rich urbanites don’t want to take buses, apparently. Consider this from a woman quoted in The Charlotte Observer: "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. "I am totally on board for using tax dollars to build trains." Of course she is. She doesn’t have to pay the full costs. Indeed, if Henry is taking Charlotte’s light rail, her round-trip ticket only costs $2.60 while an unsubsidized ticket would cost $29.66 (That’s assuming riders paid for LYNX construction costs over 10 years, and it doesn’t include operating costs.) No one would pay $30 to ride LYNX. (Hint: This is why governments build rail systems.)
Rail advocates say Charlotte’s system is wildly popular. It should be. If you could spread 50 percent of the costs of something big, new and shiny for yourself over millions of other people and get away with it, wouldn’t you? It’s a phenomenon called "concentrated benefits and dispersed costs" and it’s why hundreds of thousands of dollars in special interest money from companies like Bank of America and developers went to persuading Mecklenburg County voters to "keep the transit tax."
In other words, if a corporate head can invest $10,000 into increasing the likelihood he won’t have to build another million-dollar parking deck for his downtown commuters — won’t he? But who will represent the interests of the 99 percent of citizens who’ll have to pay $38 per household in Wake County? Who will pony up to protect the citizens of rural North Carolina who could pay $10 dollars more in license tag fees so rich folks can take a gilded trolley that carries only one-fifth the commuters of a highway lane (but costs five times as much)? Special interests are loud. Taxpayers are quiet.
Rail transit is a 19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem. We need to think of more cost-effective ways to relieve congestion — like bus rapid transit, which costs a fraction of light rail and is more flexible. And we need to send a signal to state leaders that urbanites should look for more cost-effective solutions to their traffic problems. But until they figure out how to finish the projects they’ve started and maintain the roads they’ve built around the state, we don’t need to pour resources into any more rolling boondoggles.
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