Another Rail Boondoggle

After holding a final public hearing last night, officials in Durham, North Carolina will probably decide next week to build a $3.3 billion ($2.4 billion construction plus $900 million interest on debt) light-rail line from Durham to Chapel Hill. It is hard to imagine any place that is more poorly suited for rail transit.

The region’s population density is less than 2,000 people per square mile. Except for the universities, there are no real concentrations of jobs. The biggest job center in the region, Research Triangle Park, has about 50,000 jobs spread out over 11 square miles, but it isn’t even on the proposed light-rail line. To make matters worse, the proposed 17.7-mile rail route is so circuitous that someone on a fat-tire bicycle could probably beat the train by taking a shorter route.

When Congress passed the Urban Mass Transportation Act in 1964, did anyone think that 50 or so years later we would be spending close to $50 billion a year subsidizing transit to the tune of nearly a dollar a passenger mile and five dollars a ride? Or that, in spite of spending hundreds of billions of dollars supporting transit, per capita transit ridership would have declined by more than a third?

The transit lobby is asking Congress to protect funding for transit after the existing transportation bill expires in 2020. Significantly, they aren’t making a big deal about Trump’s proposal to stop funding New Starts, the program that would fund at least half of Durham’s boondoggle, which means they don’t expect Congress to take it seriously.

The Antiplanner used to bristle when people accused me of being anti-transit. I was only against wasteful transit, I said. The thing is, the transit industry has proven that all government transit is wasteful transit. Durham just wants to join the other cities that have taken ordinary waste and turned it up to 11.

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9 thoughts on “Another Rail Boondoggle

  1. Henry Porter

    Whoever would have thought that 30 years after the Highway Trust Fund trust was broken, we would have diverted $123 billion gas tax revenue toward such utterly wasteful boondoggles? Our government cannibalizes significant revenue from the productive side of transportation (highways) and squanders it on the unproductive side (transit). Then, ironically, government lectures us for not paying enough highway taxes to maintain highways.

  2. OFP2003

    Surely this is exactly the kind of boondoggle waste the new president is interested in stopping. Where are the counter proposals? Where are the Whistleblowers? Where are the citizen advocates? Where is the group “Planning in the Public Interest” (like the “Science in the Public Interest” group)????

  3. JOHN1000

    From the look of things, I am certain the route takes the long way around is to make certain that the stops are located where people actually live and work. (SNARK).

  4. The Antiplanner Post author

    Henry,

    Of course, the $123 billion in general funds paid to keep the Highway Trust Fund solvent doesn’t quite offset the $170 billion in Highway Trust Funds used to subsidize transit. It should be renamed the Highway Mistrust Fund, both because Congress can’t keep spending within revenues and because it can’t help spending it on non-highway items.

  5. Henry Porter

    Antiplanner,

    The $123 billion I cited is not transfers from the general fund. It’s the amount that has been transferred from the federal gas & diesel tax into the Mass Transit Account of the Highway Trust Fund between 1983 and 2014.

    (https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2014/fe201.cfm)

    For comparison, from 2006 to 2014, the amount that was transferred from the General Fund into the Highway Account of the HTF was $56.7 billion. During the same 9 years, $8.8 billion was transferred from the GF to the MTA *AND* $53.0 billion was diverted from federal highway user revenue to the MTA. So the net transfer into the HA was $3.7 billion ($0.4 billion annually). But the net transfer into the MTA was $61.8 billion ($6.9 billion per year).

    But this is just the tip on the iceberg. Collectively, the states divert an additional $9.2 billion a year (11.9 percent—based on 2014) of state highway user revenue to mass transit!

    (https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2014/df.cfm)

    Transportation financing in this country is a shell game that consists of single modal revenue dispersed for multi modal transportation. One result is underfunded highway maintenance, leading to state and federal politicians and ASCE calling for gas tax increases to pay for highway maintenance.

    I hope and presume one of your reasons why transit subsidies must end is that so much of it—$16 billion annually!—comes from highway users.

  6. Henry Porter

    Oops…I double counted. Please change the second paragraph to:

    “For comparison, from 2006 to 2014, the amount that was transferred from the General Fund into the Highway Account of the HTF was $56.7 billion. During the same 9 years, $8.8 billion was transferred from the GF to the MTA *AND* $44.1 billion was diverted from federal highway user revenue to the MTA. So the net transfer into the HA was $12.6 billion ($1.4 billion annually). But the net transfer into the MTA was $52.9 billion ($5.9 billion per year).”

    Apologies….

  7. prk166


    we are building light rail for what we think our city and our region’s going 10, 20, 30 years from now.
    ” ~http://ourtransitfuture.com/

    Ironically enough the people in such a science / tech oriented town — at least that’s why they like to point out to others — they seem to have no faith in the driverless car. Their vision of the future is a technology that’s only marginally different from where it was 125 years ago.

    They route they’ve came up looks to be put together by drunk Irishmen. Maybe if St. Paul’s Chris Coleman doesn’t become the next Minnesota gov they can get him to run it? I doubt they’ll be able to land Jessie Ventura.

  8. prk166

    That said, I’ve never been able to put my pulse on exactly how this LRT proposal has legs. Are there really that many people in Durham and Chapel Hill that are obsessed with denying that they’ve chosen to live in a suburban, sprawling city?

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