Goodbye, DOLR. Hasta la vista ROMF. May you find what you’re seeking somewhere else, say, Portland or Seattle. People there are more disposed toward using your sidekick OPM (Other People’s Money) for light-rail projects.
You didn’t find fertile ground here, thanks to a legislative ghost in the machine that caps state aid for future light-rail projects at $500,000.
That has left you sucking wind for $399,500,000 in expected state aid for a 17-mile rail line with a projected price of $1.8 billion. It gets worse. Now that the General Assembly has jerked the crossties from under you, the feds are much less likely to keep the faith, too.
That the state would pony up $400 million for little more than a Lionel train set on steroids was always the biggest variable in light rail. Fortunately, lawmakers saw the folly in a line from East Durham to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, a line expected to eventually carry only 23,000 people a day across 42 at-grade crossings.
As time went on, time also went out, in the form of longer projected commute times and reduced schedules. Meanwhile, people living near the proposed 20-acre rail maintenance facility off Farrington Road and in residential developments south of N.C. 54 got a clearer picture of what was coming down the track, and they didn’t like it.
This was somebody’s bright idea about to upend their world. The original route went through Meadowmont before crossing N.C. 54. In fact, Meadowmont was sold to Chapel Hill planners as an integral part of the line, but that fizzled when residents decided they didn’t want it, after all.
So here we are, collecting a half-cent sales tax in Durham and Orange counties for something that almost certainly will never materialize. But there is opportunity here for the bold in local governments and GoTriangle to seize the day and use that money for what we really need: a truly coordinated bus rapid transit system with roads to match.
Small, agile jitneys can move people more efficiently and faster than light rail, which, as the urbanist Joel Garreau has written, requires you “to go where someone else wants you to go when someone else wants you to go.”
And always at greater cost than light rail advocates advertise. Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was refreshingly candid – a rarity among politicians – when he admitted that for big civic projects “the first budget is really just a down payment.”
Brown went on to the heart of the issue. “If people knew the real cost from the start, nothing would ever be approved. The idea is to get going. Start digging a hole and make it so big, there’s no alternative to coming up with the money to fill it in.”
Cynical, yes. But that’s what would have happened with the Durham-Orange light-rail system. It was a fixed, costly and severely limited means of moving people amid a revolution in conventional transportation.
With the welcome advent of cheaper hydrocarbon fuels – gasoline, diesel and natural gas – has come decentralization in our public transportation choices.
For example, Uber, Lyft and similar services operated by people using their private vehicles are making short-range travel more convenient and affordable than traditional taxis and even buses.
I’ll say it again: The automobile is and likely will remain the most efficient means of transportation for the great majority of Americans.
But that shouldn’t imply acceptance of congestion, the bane of urban motorists. That’s where an efficient, well-coordinated regional bus system can really make a difference on Triangle roads.
We have a long way to go toward that ideal, not only in expanded service but also in the amenities that attract riders. Shelters are too often random. For example, off N.C. 54 near its notorious intersection with Farrington Road are two GoTriangle bus stops, one on each side of the highway marked by a small signs.
That’s it. No shelters, no sidewalks, no nothing except for a muddy shoulder in foul weather
That ain’t the way to do it, folks. Let’s pull those local tax dollars out of Dreamland and put them to work in a 21-century bus system that will have people saying, “Let’s go, Triangle.”
Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.