GARY D. GADDY
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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 www.cprt.org) 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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Tuesday, September 5, 2006
Get On Board with FireAnsonDorrance.com

Now that a new season has begun many would say it's too late, but with an abysmal 4 and 1 record and one preseason poll picking them to finish 6th in the nation, it is clear something must be done about North Carolina women's soccer program. No excuses about losing five starters to graduation, or having three more off playing on national teams, or having to start five freshmen, or a "narrow loss on the road to very good team and in double overtime" will really compensate for this pathetic start to the season.

The dust has settled on last year's disgraceful conclusion. After making a dispassionate evaluation of the past season, of the coach and of the overall direction of the UNC women's soccer program, the conclusion is simple: enough is enough. When your team had won 95% of all of its games in its history; had been in every Final Four and all but one championship game for 19 consecutive years, and had won 16 of the first 19 NCAA championships held, you have a right to expect more than a record of 23-1-1. The question before us is straight-forward, the one every real fan regularly asks of his team and his coach: What have you done for me lately? Without a Final Four appearance, 23-1-1 just doesn't cut it.

Look at the cold, hard facts. UNC now has 17 NCAA Division I championships versus 7 for the rest of the universities in the U.S. This is simply not acceptable. If things keep going like they have for the past five years (and I certainly hope they won't!), all the other colleges combined will have more championships than UNC in 2021. How would that feel, Tar Heel fans?

Who is to blame? I can point a finger at only one person -- Anson Dorrance. If he hadn't produced so many great players who contributed to the increased profile of women's soccer through their success in the Olympics and the World Championships, there wouldn't be so many great young female players now that they couldn't all play for UNC. He should of thought about that before he coached the U.S. National team to the first ever Women's World Championship in 1991. Did he honestly think all of those young fans could play at Carolina? Where did he think they would go?

Let's face it, the 21st century has not been good to Coach Dorrance. UNC has won one out of five championships held since the year 2000. Clearly the 602 career wins have taken their toll on Dorrance. Perhaps it was the jumping up and down, or maybe the Gatorade baths, celebrating championships. With only three appearances in the Final Four in last five years, he should have had time to begin to recover by now. Sure Carolina went 27-0-0 in 2003, outscoring its opponents 132-11 on the season, including 32 goals to none in six NCAA Tournament matches -- but that was three years ago, for God's sake!

A career record of 602-27-18 may sound good on the surface, but not when five of those losses and seven of those ties are in the last five years -- that's one loss and almost one and half ties a year! Can it get any worse? Let's hope not!

Still, I'm all about grace, mercy and forgiveness, so I say give him a game-to-game contract. If the team turns it around, goes undefeated and untied, he can finish out the season. An undefeated, untied and unscored-upon national championship season next year and we can talk about a new one-year contract for Dorrance. Otherwise it's time to find out if John Wooden is still alive and if he knows anything about soccer.

To help me in my quest to see Tar Heel women's soccer return to the place that it rightfully ours, go to FireAnsonDorrance.com, and join with me in starting the process of throwing the bum out. Without your support, I may have to move on to my next project: RoyHasToGo.com. In either case, enjoy your season, fans.

Gary D. Gaddy, a recovering professor of journalism and statistical consultant, is a writer and fan of Jonathan Swift. Gaddy would have played soccer in his youth in the 1960s -- if there had been a single team (varsity, JV, club, rec league or pickup) on which to play in his hometown of Danville, Virginia.

A version of this column was published in the Chapel Hill Herald, September 5, 2006.  Copyright 2006 Gary D. Gaddy


Authored by Gary G. Gaddy at 2:26 PM EDT
Updated: Thursday, February 15, 2007 11:06 AM EST
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Monday, September 26, 2005
Calculations in Katrina's Aftermath

OVER THE PAST SEVERAL WEEKS major parts of America have been ripped apart by high winds and inundated by a flood filled with a noxious brew of stinking pollution -- and that's just what has come from talk radio, right and left.  If you alternate listening to a left-leaning Air America station and to Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, as I have been perversely doing, you will discover that the Gulf Coast was hit not by one but two disasters:  one caused by the Republicans and another caused by the Democrats.  (And this was before Hurricane Rita came onto the radar.)  It's clear to me they couldn't be talking about the same event.

Well, as my mother used to say, in attempting to end arguments between my stupid brother and me, "You're both right."  Government at almost every level whether controlled by Democrats (the city of New Orleans or the state of Louisiana) or Republicans (the federal government in its many manifestations) was far more than a day late and much more than a dollar short.  Which leads me to consider the major social organizations this country.

Three major types of organizations exist in America: the non-profits, for-profits and the anti-profits.  The non-profits are the civic, service, educational and religious organizations that operate to do good as they see it without regard to producing an economic surplus by using voluntary contributions of time and money.  At least that's how they're supposed to work, and does seem to be how most of them do in practice.

I think that the non-profits' actions (local civic groups raising money, local church congregations adopting families, the Red Cross delivering relief supplies, hospitals sending mobile clinics) have been more than exemplary, testifying to the best of humanity's desire to help his brother in need.  They also seem to be acting relatively quickly, smoothly and competently.

The for-profits are the businesses that operate to provide goods or services with the intent of making an economic surplus from customers' voluntary purchases.  These are everyone from the small local restaurant to Wal-Mart, many of whom have charitably taken of their economic surplus and given to those in need, for example, donating a portion or all of a day's sales to Katrina relief.  But beyond that, acting just like good for-profit businesses, many have had major positive impacts on areas hit by the hurricane.  Wal-Mart, Lowe's, Walgreen and other national retailers were ready, in advance of the disaster, to immediately supply their stores on the Gulf Coast with the things that they know from experience that people need (batteries, water, Pop Tarts) after a catastrophic event such as Katrina.

The anti-profits are the organizations that operate to do good as they are mandated by elected officials using conscripted time and money from the economic surplus of productive citizens.  These are what are commonly called government.  While the intent of the anti-profits are generally good, the results are often inefficient, ineffective -- or worse.

The aftermath of Katrina makes this clear.  While only a commission (something anti-profits specialize in) will clarify which government agency did what wrong when, a few examples make it clear that the anti-profits often didn't just not know what they were doing, or do what they should have known that they should, they often got in the way of the people who did.  Examples:  The city of New Orleans left hundreds of school buses sitting in parking lots while the estimated 100,000 car-less citizens in the city were left to fend for themselves in evacuating.   The suburban city of Gretna's police closed a bridge that provided a way out of New Orleans while the city itself was flooding.  The Louisiana State Homeland Security Department refused the Red Cross permission to take food and water to the Superdome before the hurricane struck because they did not want to "encourage people to go there."   FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, early in the disaster turned away Wal-Mart trucks delivering supplies including bottled water.  These are not examples of inefficiency and ineffectiveness; these are examples of inanity and inhumanity.  These are not examples of our tax dollars being wasted but being used against us.

Listening to talk radio makes it seem as if Katrina is making the reds redder and the blues bluer.  It's doing both to me: turning me purple, and into a libertarian.  I want disaster relief oursourced to a coalition of the Red Cross, Walmart and Lowe's.  I want emergency housing given to the interfaith shelters, and long-term housing to Habitat for Humanity.  And I want a whole bunch of currently elected officials, Republican and Democrat alike, kicked out of office.  But, thank God, whether we do or not, millions of ordinary people will, with or without the government's help, or even with its incompetent interference, do what's right and help the people of the Gulf Coast regardless of their color -- red, blue, black or white.

 

Gary D. Gaddy, a former professor of journalism, is a local writer and advocate for the disadvantaged, especially those with disabilities.

A version of this column was published in the Durham Herald-Sun September 26, 2005.

Copyright   2005 Gary D. Gaddy


Authored by Gary G. Gaddy at 9:00 AM EDT
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