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Sunday, October 1, 2006
Light Rail: A Great Idea Whose Time Has Passed

Light rail is a great idea. This is just the wrong place and the wrong time for it. What will be light about light rail? The loads its cars will carry -- and our wallets after our tax dollars are sucked out of them. And it will do nothing, or less, to solve our area's transportation problems.

First let me say that I am not an expert on rail: light, heavy, or medium weight. I have ridden on trains: the New York subway, the MBTA in Boston, the Metro in DC as well as Tweetsie in Blowing Rock. I liked them all. I love the idea of trains. I grew up a fan of trains: my grandfather worked for the Southern Railroad. My most memorable Christmas gift as a child was a used model train set. It cost $200, a lot of money in 1960, but not nearly as much as the toy train set the Triangle was about to be "given." Expertise aside, simple data and common sense will show that light rail will not work here and now.

The Unbearable Lightness of Rail

Why are we even talking about building a light rail transportation system for the Triangle? This is the wrong place. Nothing about the size of the population or its density or the distribution of residences and jobs in this area even vaguely suggest that such system will be anything except a billion-dollar boondoggle. How many people do you know who are going to drive their cars to a rail station, park, walk to the train stop, wait for a train, pay to ride, then after a ride that is likely slower than they can now drive, will then walk or pay to take a bus to where they work? None that I know.

Fixed guideway mass transit, such as the light rail systems planned for the Triangle (and for Charlotte), are only feasible where population size is high, population density is high and the distribution of residences and places of employment are such that people are going from somewhere to somewhere (as opposed to going from everywhere to everywhere). For example, Manhattan is a center of residence but even more so of employment. Many people go to work in Manhattan. If you build a rail system into Manhattan, people will get on it because they need to get to work. Because Manhattan is relatively small (less than one third the size of the city of Raleigh, believe it or not), there is a place there to which they are going. Manhattan also has more than five times the number of people as Raleigh making its population about 18 times as dense. (This means that if every three-person household in the city of Raleigh had 51 more people move in with them, then it would be as densely populated as Manhattan. Sounds cozy, don't it?) This is just Raleigh; the density for the whole Research Triangle area is much less. This kind of mass transit will work with a truly urban kind of density; without it it won't .

But wait! The situation here is even worse than these numbers imply. In Manhattan, they have subways which do not interfere with surface automobile and bus traffic. Here the plan is for above-ground trains which will compete with surface traffic. (This is one of the reasons that the trolleys and street cars of yesteryear are, well, from yesteryear.) A complex system of rail, one that would actually have a chance of having passengers, would make auto travel worse. A useful light rail system in this area would have to be incredibly extensive and complex because jobs as well as residences are not concentrated. One of the most concentrated areas of employment in this area is Research Triangle Park. The light rail will take people "there." Only one problem: there is no "there" there. RTP is 7,000 acres; that's 11 square miles; that's one third the size of Manhattan. That's just the official RTP, not all the stuff around it that looks like RTP but's not. The IBM campus in RTP is 760 acres (more than one square mile). This means that even if some of its 13,500 employees manage to live near a rail station, and there is an IBM station on the line, most of them will need mass transit, or really good walking shoes, to get them to the building they work in. Sounds real practical, doesn't it?

The Adidas Solution

Speaking of walking shoes, in one recent proposal the Triangle Transit Authority made for the Triangle light rail system in order to justify federal contributions of hundreds of millions of dollars, it estimated that it would, in the year 2030, take four hours and 18 minutes to drive in a car from downtown Durham to downtown Raleigh. Using the bus stations in downtown Durham and Raleigh as the endpoints, Mapquest and I calculate that as 10 minutes and 11 seconds per mile. My brother, in 2003, ran the Montgomery County Marathon in the Parks at a 7 minute and 58 second per mile pace. In other words, if, in 2030, I left downtown Durham driving in my car at the same time as my brother left running on his feet, he would have to wait for me in downtown Raleigh for 58 minutes. Of course, that assumes an assumption almost as ridiculous as as some of the TTA's, that my brother will be able to run as fast at age 84 as he did at age 57. Any guesses why the feds turned down the TTA's proposal?

Rather than a billion dollar rail system, I propose free Adidas for everyone in the Research Triangle area!

An Omnibus Proposal

Now is the wrong time for light rail. But, perhaps, there are better ideas. My counter-proposal to light rail as a solution to the transportation problems of the Research Triangle area is the innovative omnibus. You haven't heard about the omnibus? Well, start paying attention! It's the radical concept for conveying passengers in enclosed light-weight vehicles along fixed intra-urban routes for a flat fare, first introduced by Abraham Brower in Manhattan in 1827. They were horse drawn. The new omnibus, perhaps with faster, sleeker, genetically engineered horses, would be a more up-to-date idea than light rail. (The omnibus would be ecologically sound, producing little pollution if we don't count horse . . . stuff, something the light rail proposal has already produced mass quantities of.) My omnibus proposal is a joke. I wish the light rail proposal was -- because it is.

Light rail is only slightly less out of date than the original omnibus. The first scheduled light rail passenger train service in America wasn't introduced until a whole three years after the omnibus. Hopefully, the light rail system proposed for the Triangle will carry more passengers or be faster than that first light rail service was -- but I doubt it. The first American trip on light rail was described by the ''Charleston Courier" on December 29, 1830, thusly: "The one hundred and forty-one persons flew on the wings of wind at the speed of fifteen to twenty-five miles per hour, annihilating time and space." The light rail system currently proposed for the Triangle, being more technologically advanced, will do much more than that. It will annihilate not only time and space but energy and money, while carrying almost no passengers at all!

Annihilating Time and Space

The time and energy that will be expended if this system is built will be considerable. Even if there were no money involved here, as a community we will invest substantial social and political capital to build -- or to keep it from being built. If it is built the likelihood of any other alternative transportation system being constructed will be greatly reduced. So, if it doesn't help solve our transportation problems -- and it will not -- it is unlikely that any other solution will be tried before things get much worse. So if we are sold a solution, it is important that it work, even if it were to be free for us (which it won't, by any means, be). For example, if the proposed light-rail system doesn't work the railway corridor right-of-ways will be occupied with a system that may require an expensive undoing before they will be useful for any future transportation use. And there may be other non-automobile transportation systems in the near future that may actually work. Personal Rapid Transit (see is just one possible alternative. PRT is an automated transportation system where passengers ride in 2 to 4 person vehicles on elevated guideways non-stop from where they start all the way to their destination. It would be cheaper and more effective than light rail. The elevated guideways could run on highway medians and could be designed not to interfere with surface traffic. It could be electric thereby reducing air pollution as well.

And then there's the little matter of money for the light rail system. At this point, the advocates and self-interested parties promoting this idea say it will cost $724 million, in 2002 dollars (and even less in 1830 dollars!), just to get started. But just in case you haven't been closely following how bureaucratic estimates of cost for government projects match up with actual costs, get ready for some more zeroes. This three quarters of a billion dollars is for a 35-mile-long route that follows an existing freight rail corridor. This, at $20 mil a mile, is the cheap part. It essentially goes from just west of downtown Durham to downtown Raleigh. It does not, for example, even go to the largest employment center in Durham, Duke Hospital, to the largest existing transportation hub in the center of the Triangle, the RDU airport, or even near Chapel Hill, the center of the known universe. A useable link to the airport would be an astronomically expensive endeavor. Think for a moment about weaving a railroad into the existing complex of terminals, parking decks, runways and access roads, without making airport traffic worse rather than better and I think you'll get the picture. Stretches of the airport railway connector would have to be put underground. In New York City, where advocates tout costs of $100 million dollars a mile for light rail, subway construction is estimated as ten times higher: one billion dollars a mile. You heard me right: $1,000,000,000 a mile. (Please note the extra zeroes.)

Meanwhile, back at Chapel Hill, if you think that quaint village will ever let a railroad line be built through it, you haven't ever been there. Chapel Hill is in favor of light rail -- just "Not In My Backyard." I'm so confident of this assertion that if a light rail line ever does get put through Chapel Hill, you can dig up my corpse and lay it on the tracks. I am sure that mine won't be the only dead body that the inaugural commuter train runs over.

And, oh yeah, the money it costs to build this light rail system will only be the start. Wait until you see the annual operating subsidies it will take to keep it going. And those will come from you and me, local tax paying citizens. Operating and maintenance costs in the first year of operations are estimated at $18.1 million. With train tickets projected to cost between $1 and $3, depending on the length of trip, fare revenues that year are projected to be $3.3 million, or 18 percent of the operating costs. The remaining 82 percent would be subsidized by people who do not use the service. (That is, you and me. Even by the Triangle Transit Authority's own optimistic estimates, by 2025, with a more extensive and expensive system built, only about 28,000 people are expected to board the train each day. Neither you nor I are statistically likely to be among them -- and we will be paying much more than $15 million year to support it by then. )

We live in a democracy, I hear. So where are the public debates and referenda on this proposed expenditure of extremely large sums of public tax dollars? I haven't heard about any, have you? The Center for Local Innovation, which is part of the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, surveyed 500 voters and found that 46 percent opposed the project while 41 percent supported it. When told that the Triangle Transit Authority projects only a slight reduction in traffic congestion, the numbers changed to 60 percent opposed and 27 percent for the project. This drop in support comes from one line of information being given to the people being surveyed. I am quite confident that if an actual public conversation occurred on the topic of light rail that almost no one sane would support it when the debate was done.

As for energy of the oil-produced kind, theoretically mass transit can save energy. Practically speaking, empty trains waste it.

The Magic of OPM

Having looked briefly at what it may cost, let's look at how the TTA proposed that it be paid for: the best way there is, OPM. OPM is the magic medium of exchange that makes even the most profitless dissipation of valuable resources painless. OPM is to public projects what novocaine is to dentistry. You've never heard of this fantastic product, OPM? It's simple; it's fun; it's Other People's Money. With OPM, the drabest bureaucrat or the most tiresome politician can sell the populace on just about any public project. Other People's Money will build it. Other People's Money will pay to keep it going. Can't beat that, can you? (Important note: OPM is never the capital of savy outside investors' who are making strategic decisions about where to get the best return on their own money. It's money taken involuntarily and repeatedly from people who are often completely unwitting as to how it will be used. Mysteriously, the victims often do nothing about these serial violations of their belongings. In case you have heard of these multifarious malversations before, they're commonly called taxation.)

Here's how the OPM formula was to work in this case. The Triangle Transit Authority's own financial analysis showed that for the most expansive version of the rail plan, about 52% of the capital funds would come from federal subsidies. So we start by getting people who don't even live in North Carolina to pay for half the cost of building it. That's sweet. (I'm working on a way to get my car payments paid for that way, but, so far, my mom and dad aren't going for it. They have selfishly become 80 years old and want to stay retired.) State funds would account for another 23% of the construction costs. So, next we get people who don't live in our part of North Carolina to pay for another quarter of the cost. That's nifty. We're mostly rich, they're generally not, and we've got them paying for a luxury for us. In another remarkably clever move, an addtional 10% will come from even more people who aren't from around here via a local tax on car rentals. (Why they should pay for our mass transit is beyond me, but who cares as long as it's not me paying?) Bonds, which delay our payments into the future (that is, send the bill to our children), would fund about 12% of construction. Finally, interest earnings, whatever those are (an Enronian accounting trick, I assume), are supposed to pay for about 3%.

Thus, we who live here would have paid next to nothing now to build the rail line or buy the train cars. Further, those few who are around here who would actually use the trains would pay even less of the real costs since they will also be subsidized for the operating costs. All these numbers are making me want to ride on one of these trains even if it won't start where I am or take me where I want to go. Perhaps if they can get Native Americans in authentic dress to attack it and bank robbers on horseback to hold it up, maybe they can lure tourists away from Maggie Valley and Blowing Rock to ride around in a circle with me.

Of course, the stuff about you and I not paying for much for building this billion plus dollar project, makes one suspect assumption, that you and I don't pay any state or federal taxes, which we probably do, in which case we are not only going to pay for this proposed system, if it is built, but dozens of other light rail systems planned around the country, many of which make little more fiscal or transportation sense than this one.

Now that the feds have opted out, we are supposed to pay for what was to be the "free" part? Don't think so. This makes no more sense with our money than it did with someone else's.

A Final Word

God save us from well-intentioned people with ill-conceived ideas. Please help us come to our senses while we still have a dollar left to patch the potholes in our roads, because that's how almost all of us are going to be traveling for the foreseeable future.

In the future the Triangle will need mass transit, so let's plan for a mass transit system of the future. What should we do, here and now, about transportation in the Triangle? Maintain our current roadways. Improve our bus systems. Buy and preserve the rail corridors for future, sensible use. Encourage population density in our urban centers. And not throw away our actual and political capital on ideas that won't help fix any of our transportation problems.

Gary D. Gaddy is a writer, a consultant to non-profits aiding the disadvantaged, the former coordinator of statistical consulting at the Howard W. Odum Institute for Research in Social Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and is, really, a fan of railroad trains.

A much abbreviated version published in the Chapel Hill Herald on October 1, 2006.  Copyright 2006 Gary D. Gaddy


Authored by Gary G. Gaddy at 4:08 PM EDT
Updated: Thursday, February 15, 2007 11:05 AM EST
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