Point of View

The power of inertia: Sparring over Durham-Orange light rail

February 19, 2014 

The Durham-Orange light rail project seems to be following a law of physics: the power of inertia, which is the tendency of a body in motion to remain in motion unless acted on by an outside force.

This is particularly evident when the inertia is backed by those who can legitimately take credit for first putting the project in motion. This is also a pattern found in history. Consider this analogy to what took place between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison from 1884 to 1893 as electricity was commercialized.

Edison was a chief proponent of DC (direct current) electricity. AC (alternating current) was Tesla’s brainchild. Tesla attempted to convince Edison of the advantages that AC had over DC, but Edison rejected Tesla’s arguments, believing the AC was too dangerous. He did all in his power to discredit Tesla and arranged for public demonstrations using AC to electrocute an elephant and other animals.

Edison’s beliefs were backed by great authority and considerable financial resources. After all, he was widely recognized as the inventor of electric lighting. Edison’s production of motors was a monopoly, and he had no personal interest in changing the status quo. The world was beginning to be wired for DC.

Tesla countered with his own impressive public demonstrations by sending a potential of 200,000 volts of AC through his body, with lightning streaks emanating from his fingertips, to show that AC was safe. Tesla and George Westinghouse first harnessed the power of Niagara Falls and successfully sent AC power to Buffalo, N.Y. AC proved itself when it was used to electrify the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago. It was a spectacular success, and DC would eventually prove to be impractical on several counts. Today, the world is wired for AC.


For the Durham-Orange light rail project,the momentum of time and the backing of Triangle Transit carry it essentially along the same route chosen almost two decades ago. For years, many citizens have submitted comments at TTA public meetings asking for a direct transit route from Chapel Hill to RTP. This idea was explored, and a new exciting revision to the plan is now available. This new plan claims to solve many of the issues with the TTA Light Rail plan and gives more bang for significantly less bucks.

Residents of Carrboro, Chapel Hill and the proposed large development in Chatham County as well those in Durham could have a direct transit route to the center of the region, with several rail stations at the edge of RTP within 1.5 miles of the Park Center development. This could all be accomplished with the very first light rail project in the region and also provide a faster, safer and more environmentally friendly rail route between Chapel Hill and Durham.

This sounds like an interesting topic for citizen input, and the National Environmental Policy Act says that reasonable alternatives should be studied. However, for the past eight months, Triangle Transit has given the same message: It’s too late to make a major change to the project. No discussion. Can’t stop the inertia.

Citizens and stakeholders should be allowed to comment, and I would also suggest voting, before committing $1.4 billion to $1.7 billion in public funds.

It’s time for public demonstrations between two rail plans, but without elephants and lightning bolts.

Terry Rekeweg of Raleigh

is a transportation engineer.

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