Civitas Review

Triangle Rail: You Want my Opinion?


The people trying to build pyrami- uh light rail in Raleigh are asking for opinions. Whether or not that was another April Fool's joke, I'm giving mine. There are a lot of justifications for light rail, and none of them are any good:

1) Gas prices are getting to be too high, so people need alternative transportation.

While gas prices are at numerical records, as a percentage of income they aren't as high as the early 80s. Further, some of the TTA trains will run on diesel, which is more expensive than gas and more polluting. According to expert Randall O'Toole, the average light rail uses more energy per passenger and pollutes more per passenger mile than cars. If we're talking about subsidizing the working poor, there are a lot better ways to do it (like give them tax waivers on gas). North Carolina has the highest motor fuels taxes in the Southeast last time I looked.

2) It will change land use patterns to make cities more livable and less energy dependent.

Uh huh. So you're going to spend billions to build rail where rich white folks (who can afford gas) travel, make those areas more congested. When you do so, you can count on housing prices in those artificially scarce (subsidized) areas to go up, making housing less affordable. Poorer people will move to the suburbs away from the subsidized trains and pay higher gas prices to commute into town. Brilliant. While you might get the accretion of special interest dollars around the choo choo – making wealthy folks have a better urban experience – you're sacrificing dollars that would be spent on a distributed transportation system (roads) to one, big monolithic, centralized system that will cost at least 5 times more than a highway lane, but carry only a fifth as many people. Everyone else gets to subsidize the "urban livability" of the few – to the tune of billions. Perverse–that is, even if you think crowding people together around trains makes for livability. I'd rather have a yard for my little boy to run around.

3) It will help relieve traffic congestion.

1%, 2% at most – for maybe a year or so. This is not significant.

4) Auto travel is subsidized, so why not transit?

O'Toole: "So transit costs are nearly three time auto costs, while transit subsidies are more than eight times auto costs."

Light rail is, and always has been, a kind of totem. People worship it, but it has no magic in the real world.
-Max Borders