- North Carolina leftists continue their light-rail fetish
- If they had their way, the state’s Highway Trust Fund would be raided to pay for such boondoggles
- Light rail is a wildly expensive and inefficient means of transportation, and forces taxpayers to subsidize the transportation of a tiny fraction of the population
North Carolinians are just one election away from once again seeing our scarce transportation dollars being squandered on corruption, roads to nowhere and light rail money pits.
The latest example that foretells how damaging the left’s transportation agenda would be is the current flap over light rail funding for the Durham-Orange Light Rail project. Originally projected to cost a total of $1.6 billion, the line’s latest projected price tag had already ballooned to $2.47 billioni by August of this year – and that’s before the project has even broken ground!
Light Rail Terribly Expensive, Inefficient, and Consistently Suffers from Cost Overruns
Light rail projects are notorious for running well over estimated costs. For instance, Charlotte’s light rail exceeded projected costs by about 2-½ times. If that rate of cost overrun afflicts the Durham Orange line, the project could very well exceed $5 billion in costs when it’s all said and done.
Moreover, in spite of the outsized price tag, light rail moves but a tiny fraction of commuters compared to other more efficient means of transportation. Just under 18 miles of rail line (the projected size of the Durham-Orange line) at a cost of $2.47 billion equates to a cost per-mile of more than $139 million, and that is on the slight chance the project comes in according to current projected costs.
The numbers behind the project are difficult to justify
According to the American Road and Transportation Builders association, 4-lane urban highways can be built for approximately $8-$10 million per mile.ii The Durham-Orange Light Rail line is about fourteen times more expensive per mile than an average four-lane highway.
Furthermore, the Durham-Orange light-rail line is projected to average 622 passengers per hour (light rail ridership often falls short of estimates, too). Conversely, highways can accommodate 2,200 cars per lane per hour meaning a four-lane highway could accommodate 8,800 cars per hour. For the same amount of money, DOT could build nearly 250 miles worth of four-lane highways. Which option do you think would best mitigate congestion?
In this case, light rail would be fourteen times more expensive than a 4-lane highway, but would carry only about 7 percent as many commuters.
“I haven’t seen any data here that supports the concept of light-rail,” said Rep. Larry Yarborough (R-Person) at a House Transportation Committee meeting last year. “Everything I know about it is that it’s a feel-good proposition with very expensive cost per passenger-mile.”
Liberal Lawmakers Want to Raid Highway Trust Fund for Light Rail Boondoggles
Undaunted by the financial challenges light rail present, left-wing state legislators continue to be enamored of light-rail boondoggles, and want to eliminate restrictions on the amount they can raid from the state’s Highway Trust Fund to finance this inefficient means of transportation.
The latest evidence of this came this spring with the introduction of Senate Bill 170 Remove Limits on Light Rail Funding, sponsored by Joel Ford (D-Mecklenburg), Angela Bryant (D-Nash) and Erica Smith-Ingram (D-Bertie).
In 2015, legislators implemented a cap for state funding of light rail projects, limiting state Highway Trust Fund support to 10 percent of the total cost of the project.
According to light rail proponents, limiting the state portion to 10 percent leaves too heavy a burden on local and federal revenue sources for the Durham Orange line and presents a serious roadblock for the project.
To date, North Carolina has completed one major light rail project – the LYNX line in Charlotte, with construction costs in excess of half a billion dollars. A $1.16 billion extension to the LYNX line is currently being completed – but is suffering from delays and likely to come online about six months later than first promised.
In spite of the lessons from Charlotte, the left’s lust to spend other people’s money to enrich their cronies is strong. To that end, we see legislation introduced to eliminate the state spending cap, in order for the Durham-Orange line project to survive
Light Rail is Government Cronyism at its Worst
The left pushes so hard for light rail in large part because it satisfies key components of their worldview: in this case endorsing government force to enrich cronies at the expense of taxpayers, all veiled under the phony feel-good guise of “helping the environment.” Light rail is backed by Gov. Roy Cooper. Supporters range from transit groups, to environmental groups, to far-left advocacy groups.
As with many government boondoggles, light rail projects offer crony developers and contractors the chance to gain billions in revenue – no doubt with an understood obligation to support those legislators who delivered the goods in return. For instance, former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Gannon was arrested in 2014 on corruption charges stemming in part from an incident in which he met and cooperated with an “undercover agent posing as a developer from Las Vegas… interested in developments along a streetcar and light rail line being built in Charlotte.”
Meanwhile, taxpayers across the state — many of whom will never ride the rail line — are compelled to pay for light rail. And the alleged environmental benefits that left-wing politicians pretend to care about are nonexistent, in large part because traffic isn’t mitigated due to such low ridership and because light rail uses roughly the same amount of energy per passenger as cars.
How “Progessive” is Supporting 19th Century Technology?
Leftists like to call themselves “progressives”, as if they are forward-looking. So why the fetish for a 19th-Century mode of transportation like rail?
“I’d like to know what data, what science [justify] using a 19th-century technology?” Rep. Rayne Brown (R-Davidson) asked at last year’s House Transportation Committee meeting.
With technology like self-driving cars, massive underground tunnels, and ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft, light rail travel may soon look as antiquated as the horse and buggy.
The Left’s Transportation Vision for North Carolina
Should the left once again regain control of North Carolina, we should expect more emphasis on light rail and more roads to nowhere. And let’s not forget about the left’s affinity for cronyism and abuse of power. With the Left holding many of the major political offices in the State, in the 1990s the abuses were exposed to a national audience. The sale of Board of Transportation seats and a “penchant for building roads and bridges that benefit political insiders, often by overriding the recommendations of state highway engineers” even made the New York Times take notice.
Above all else, however, the left thirsts for power and control over people’s lives. Allocating scarce transportation dollars and resources efficiently does not rank high on their agenda. What light rail does do, however, is give the left more control over people’s movement and in turn impact decisions on where people choose to live and work.
Visions of “livable” cities and “smart growth” plans fill the heads of city officials and urban planners. Of course, these grand designs involve a small group of elites imposing their preferences on the rest of us. A 2010 New York Times article hailed Charlotte’s light rail project as a shining example of the Obama Administration’s Department of Transportation “livability” initiative. Their ultimate goal is behavior modification.
The left forces taxpayers across the state to finance their ill-conceived schemes, with little concern for the economic damage done by the wasteful diversion of resources away from more productive transportation projects.
And the hours of time wasted on congested roads is likewise of no concern, as long as the left can reward their cronies with billions of taxpayer dollars and hoodwink people into thinking light rail and other transit projects are actually helping to “save the environment.”
However, as transportation expert Randall O’Toole of the Cato Institute summarizes: “For the most part, light rail has increased congestion, harmed transit riders, and wasted taxpayers’ money.”
A Better Way
There is a better way of funding transportation, and we’ve seen significant improvement in recent years.
Instead of rewarding political cronies and chasing the latest wildly expensive and inefficient fad; developing an objective, strategic evaluation of the state’s highest transportation needs offers a better way to proceed. In 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly established the Strategic Mobility Formula, which allocates available revenues based on data-driven scoring and local input.
According to NCDOT, this new methodology paid great dividends; creating a plan for 2016 – 2025 that “includes an additional 478 highway projects and is expected to support about 300,000 jobs. That’s 300 more projects (a 273 percent increase) and 126,000 more jobs (a 172 percent increase) than what the old funding formula, which distributed money equally across the state, would have allowed.”
Moreover, means of funding that more closely links payment with actual users is preferred to taxing people to pay for projects that they will never use – like light rail. The gas tax serves as arguably the best proxy of a government user fee, as it requires heavier users of the roads and highways to pay more (toll roads also serve as a fairly straightforward user fee).
Despite its many problems, the left’s infatuation with light rail continues. North Carolina would do well to avoid efforts that divert scarce resources, invite political cronyism and corruption and instead pursue a transportation strategy where cost is tied to use. Such opportunities offer not only the best chance for meeting our transportation needs but also managing environmental issues.