Michael Sanera, a point man for the state's leading conservative spin tank, recently mixed outrage with innuendo to accuse local planners of lying about a big transit upgrade for Wake County.
But his blunt tactics could overshadow helpful questions raised in a critique published by Sanera's employer, the John Locke Foundation, of a $3 billion, 25-year plan for new trains and more buses.
If the Wake commissioners agree this year to let voters consider a possible half-cent sales tax to pay for big transit improvements, we'll need clear information to guide a momentous decision:
Who would ride all these buses, rush-hour commuter trains and electric light-rail trains? What overall benefits would result? Do Wake and the Triangle really need a big transit plan?
Sanera favors information that is not always clear. In recent public appearances, he relied less on Locke's 76-page report than on his own one-page addendum. It distills his harsh warning that advocates of transit projects cannot be trusted.
"The blue sheet ... is a study of 258 transit plans around the world, and it found a statistically significant result," Sanera told the Raleigh City Council last week.
"Which is that the cost overruns are not just errors. They are what they call 'strategic misrepresentation,' or out-and-out lies."
His blue sheet sums up a 2002 study by three Danish professors who found that, for 258 transportation projects launched around the world between 1910 and 1998, the cost estimates fell short by an average of 28 percent.
Sanera loves to quote this Danish study, even when he is not talking about transportation. Last year he boldfaced its "strategic misrepresentation" rhetoric in his own critique of city convention center projects.
"Does anyone believe there will not be cost overruns?" Sanera asked the Apex Town Board at a Feb. 7 meeting. During a 20-minute talk on the transit plan, he quoted the blue sheet three times.
But Sanera was adding his own spin to the Danish study, which deals mostly with roads.
Of its 258 transportation infrastructure projects, 200 are for construction of highways, bridges and tunnels. The remaining 58 are railroad projects, some for conventional or high-speed intercity rail. It is not clear how many of these involve local transit plans in the United States or elsewhere.
Wake's plan is being presented this winter to the county's 12 municipalities by David Cooke, the county manager, and David King, general manager of Triangle Transit, the three-county agency that also oversees transit plans for Durham and Orange counties.
The plan describes beefed-up bus service, rush-hour commuter trains from west Durham to Garner, and a light-rail line from Cary to northeast Raleigh.
Durham voters approved a half-cent sales tax for transit spending last year.
Orange and Wake commissioners are expected to decide this spring on whether to hold transit tax referendums in November.
Sanera oversees research and local government studies for the Locke Foundation, which added to a long shelf of transit critiques when it published the new report by David T. Hartgen, a retired UNC-Charlotte professor, and Thomas A. Rubin, a consultant based in Oakland, Calif.
In the Locke-funded report, Hartgen and Rubin blast the plan as "not technically or financially feasible." They contend that Wake's plan is grounded in unreliable forecasts for population, economic growth and tax revenues that "seem optimistic" or "appear to be high."
Analysts for Locke like roads
When the subject turns to automobile transportation, Hartgen and Rubin express high hopes of their own.
They are confident that highway improvements planned for the next 25 years "will hold congestion largely in check." Our roads won't get much more crowded, they say, because "many studies think vehicle registration is approaching saturation." No studies are cited.
Meanwhile, Hartgen and Rubin predict low transit ridership and high costs - an average $92 for every trip on a commuter train, and $33 for every light rail trip, they say. They derive these stunning numbers from their own projections.
They foresee, for example, only 735 commuters making the daily trip on rush-hour trains that would serve most of the region's top job centers - from Duke University through Research Triangle Park to downtown Raleigh.
What comes next
Hartgen and Rubin complain that the Wake transit plan fails to explain why these transit improvements are needed and what benefits they would provide.
There is no evaluation of current transit service, they point out, and little discussion of likely ridership and economic benefits.
Cooke and King will have the chance to respond next week when they appear at a luncheon discussion with Hartgen and Joe Milazzo II of the Regional Transportation Alliance, a business group that lobbies for transportation improvements.
The Triangle Community Coalition is hosting the event March 8 at the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, 800 S. Salisbury St. Details are available at 919-228-2599 or online at tricc.org.