Here’s a sure-fire idea for the legislature: Let’s spend $138 million of North Carolinians’ money on a project that:
- You probably will never need or use;
- Is based on 19th-century technology;
- Will fatten the wallets of insiders, wheeler-dealers and big companies; and
- Will give Washington bureaucrats another club to beat us with.
Great idea, huh?
The project is a proposed $1.6 billion light-rail project from Chapel Hill through Durham. The state would be on the hook for at least $138 million for the project, with much of the rest coming from the feds.
Maybe, on the other hand, you think it would be better if the legislature put this plan on ice, or at least refused to help pay for it. After all, you might say, if Triangle residents will benefit, they ought to pay for it, and not ask people from the rest of the state to chip in. In that case, you’ll be dismayed to learn that a state House panel has helped to advance a bill lifting a spending cap on this scheme.
Last year’s state budget deal contained a $500,000 cap on such projects. Such a lid on spending would, obviously, put a big crimp on the light-rail project as envisioned so far. It would at least relieve people from Asheville to Wilmington from the obligation to pay for it.
Now, however, a new measure, House Bill 988, would remove the cap. Advocates say that’s so the state’s transportation plan can consider all options.
But some lawmakers from rural areas are pushing back. They point out their towns and counties will never need or get light-rail. Why should people who will never ride the trains pay for it? They also point out, correctly, that light-rail is already obsolete.
“I’d like to know what data, what science [justify] using a 19th-century technology?” Rep. Rayne Brown (R-Davidson) asked at a meeting of the House Transportation Committee.
Moreover, other modern light-rail plans have invariably turned out to be boondoggles. “I haven’t seen any data here that supports the concept of light-rail,” said Rep. Larry Yarborough (R-Person) at the committee meeting. “Everything I know about it is that it it’s a feel-good proposition with very expensive cost per passenger-mile.”
However, HB988 passed the committee and was sent on the Appropriations Committee. If it passes the House, the measure reportedly has strong support in the state Senate. It’s a fact of political life that legislators like to claim credit for flashy projects whose real costs will only become obvious once those lawmakers are collecting their pensions.
According to advocates, HB988 just allows legislators to put light-rail up for consideration, but taxpayers may well fear that once such projects come up they are politically irresistible, despite the many problems, including obsolescence.
Light-rail is just another railroad train – even as technology is transforming every other aspect of transportation.
Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing services are making it easier for people to get where they want to go. Moreover, driverless cars are getting closer to being a reality.
The light-rail plan is estimated to be running at the earliest in 2025. By then, new ways of traveling may make light-rail about as useful as having a fleet of horse-drawn wagons plodding up and down Highway 15-501 searching for foot-weary pioneers.
Remember, more than a billion dollars will be spread around before a single traveler rides a train. Who gets that money? Big companies, bureaucrats, developers, and various political cronies and fat cats will. They’ll have cashed their checks long before problems surface.
Meanwhile, 17 miles of a busy part of the Triangle will be torn up for years, disrupting the transportation network we already use.
Our liberal friends complain the state doesn’t spend enough on schools. North Carolina would have a lot more to spend on schools if it didn’t waste billions on boondoggles.
Another argument is that the federal government will cover much of the costs. Well, whose money was that in the first place?
Also, the federal government is on the hook for tens of trillions of dollars already. What happens if down the road Washington says, “Oops, turns out we don’t have the money for that after all”?
Which brings up a danger that is now in sharper focus than ever: What happens if D.C. bureaucrats decide to use that money as a club to force North Carolina to do something? Many liberals cheer when the Obama administration threatens to withhold money over HB2. What happens if a future administration, whether more or less liberal, makes the same threat by withholding light-rail funds, once the line is half finished?
The spending cap was an effective way to keep the state from funding a boondoggle that would benefit only one urban area.
North Carolinians should keep an eye on this whole process. Tune in to this website, our other publications, and Civitas Action (civitasaction.org) to keep abreast of what is happening to HB988 and other measures that will impact life here in North Carolina.