North Carolina Republicans Launch 11th Hour Attack on Durham-Chapel Hill Light Rail

Republicans in the North Carolina legislature are trying to snuff out an 18-mile light rail project, approved by voters in Chapel Hill and Durham. Map: GoTriangle
Republicans in the North Carolina legislature are trying to snuff out an 18-mile light rail project, approved by voters in Chapel Hill and Durham. Map: GoTriangle

A budget bill heading for a vote in the North Carolina statehouse this week could sabotage a light rail project for the Research Triangle region that’s on the verge of construction.

About $148 million has already been spent on planning and engineering for the 18-mile light rail route connecting the fast-growing job hubs of Durham and Chapel Hill. Local voters in Durham and Orange counties voted in 2011 and 2012 to raise sales taxes by half a percent to pay for the $2.5 billion project.

Go Triangle, the regional transit agency, was planning to apply for $1.2 billion in federal support next year. Construction would then begin in 2020.

But inside the budget bill from the state’s Republican supermajority is a passage that would make “a light rail project” ineligible for state funding unless all federal and local funding has been secured.

That creates an impossible Catch-22, because the Durham-Chapel Hill light rail project can’t access federal funds unless state and local contributions have been secured. The state had previously pledged to contribute 10 percent, or $247 million.

Governor Roy Cooper, a Democrat, could veto the budget, but a unified Republican vote in the legislature would override him.

Democrats from Orange and Durham counties point out that the measure would harm some of the state’s largest economic centers. Three of the state’s 10 biggest employers are located along the route.

“It’s the spiteful mentality,” Penny Rich, vice chair of the Orange County Commission, told the Herald Sun.

Republicans in the statehouse have tried to scrap the project before. Originally, the state was expected to chip in about a quarter of the funding. An earlier GOP attempt to kill would have limited state funding for the project to $500,000, and that was later revised to cover 10 percent of project costs.

The passage in question cannot be removed from the budget bill. An up or down vote is expected this week.

  • 1980Gardener

    Pointless.. Simply pointless.

  • snrvlakk

    Republicans in positions of authority. Bad people with bad ideas, faatical adherents to a corrupt and destructive ideology. Always a bad idea.

  • newtonmarunner

    Haven’t been to Durham since my brother attended Duke. That was ages ago.

    Anyhow, $2.5 billion at 26,000 projected riders still is well above the $50K/rider threshold to make the rail project at least a marginal investment. [In Europe, rail projects generally run between $10K-$25K/rider; in the U.S., $25K-$50K.] And 10 minute headways at peak hour and 20 minute headways off-peak is probably better if you either run either a shorter train (or a bus if the train is one car) at higher frequency for better ridership. So this project definitely needs a lot of work if it is to go through.

  • LazyReader

    2.5 Billion for 18 miles….If I were a democrat I’d hate this project. Why is the fed forking over so much cash for this endeavor? Because the state could Never raise or justify raising enough capital to pay for this project and fares wouldn’t even cover 50% of the operating expenses. Unfortunately, politicians are more interested in making highly visible gestures than in making effective decisions. Transit agencies don’t care about providing transit they care about building infrastructure empires. There’s nothing you cant do with light rail you cant do with a bus cheaper. Durham, Chapel Hill are hicktowns by urban comparisons. Light-rail ridership is declining in most cities that have it including Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Charlotte, Cleveland, Portland, St. Louis, Sacramento, Salt Lake City. While it is increasing in some cities, such as Dallas, Houston, and Los Angeles, those increases are more than offset by declining bus ridership, often due to cuts in service forced by the high cost of rail construction and upkeep and the cost of upkeep skyrockets when they ignore maintenance over building more rail. Rail infrastructure has a life expectancy of 30 years, once it’s that old you either have to replace it, painstakingly refurbish it; failing that, jerry rig maintenance solutions forever until either of the two are accomplished. Portland’s first light-rail line was 2 years shy of 30 in 2014 when it began experiencing repeated breakdowns. A state audit found that TriMet, Portland’s transit agency, had fallen behind on scheduled track and signal maintenance.

    In short, Charlotte, NC spent a lot of money on light rail when it could have had a better transit system by relying on buses. It deliberately ignored the bus alternative after 2002 even though its early studies showed that buses were not only less expensive, they would attract riders. Now the region is saddled with the high costs of operating and maintaining more miles of rail line when transit ridership is declining anyway. This is hardly worthy of celebration. Charlotte’s a much bigger city than Durham. And what were the results of their light rail investment? Over 100% cost overrun. Piss poor ridership, millions in annual operating costs. Transit agencies who build light rail lines and then compel their
    patrons to stop at a train station and then transfer to a train, whereas
    they may have been able to take a bus straight to their destination are
    usually wasting their patrons’ time. But who gives a damn about wasting
    those low income folks’ time when there are taxpayer dollars, eminent
    domain power, campaign contributions, contracts, prestige, city boosting
    and municipal pride, bragging rights, and photo opportunities all
    riding on the line with rail, not to mention the chance to experiment
    with urban social theories using your fellow city dwellers as lab rats.

  • LazyReader

    The very act of subsidizing transit further only exacerbates their financial negligence. The result has been a huge perversion of spending priorities. A propensity towards capital spending over operations and maintenance. And grandiose projects rather than simple solutions. This, of course, has led to the maintenance debacles in the New York City, Chicago, DC, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other heavy-rail systems, increasing public debts and decreases in actual transportation services.

    The industry is already collapsing despite the subsidies. The passage of the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, cities quickly municipalized transit and private and still profitable transit companies became boondoggle building, federal tax exploiting waste machines with a political machine embedded to keep the finances rolling regardless of
    ridership rates. What subsidies did was incentivize agencies to abandon cost efficiency and start building rail lines out in the boondocks and suburbs for people that barely use it all the while ignoring the core market. Transit amounts to less than 1% in all but a handful of approximately 360 census defined urbanized places…. In other words, if transit disappeared tomorrow in a lot of places most people would hardly notice…or care. Outside a couple of cities like New York it’s not vital to urban economies.

    Transit agencies should prepare for the inevitable phase out of their rail systems in places where it’s largely unnecessary; Stop building new rails and saddling future taxpayers with debts. Replace their existing lines with buses. Subsidize people rather than agencies who really need transit (lower income, elderly, handicapped) with transit vouchers redeemable for ride services or destination bus system to fill buses to capacity. Start paying down their debts and unfunded pension and health care obligations instead of pursuing some holy crusade of getting higher income people out of their cars. 2.5 Billion For 1/1000th the money they could spend on an advertising blitz of TV ads and billboards encouraging people to carpool more. Ride sharing services have decimated public transit ridership in small cities and towns, namely because station-to-station destination based technology is no match for door-to-door destination technology.

  • swtmix

    Wendell Cox is that you (again)?

  • swtmix

    Or is this Randall O’Toole?

    With over 16,000 posts it must be nice to be paid to just sit there and troll the internet. If I saw that number on most sites I would assume you were working in St. Petersburg Russia.

  • Guest

    Are they planning to concentrate development massively around the transit hubs to promote ridership? That seems unlikely. I’ve been to downtown Durham and it is completely lifeless. Transit barely works in NC’s largest city, where there is at least a compact downtown core with a large jobs and entertainment base for it to serve. In a region utterly given over to suburban sprawl, I don’t see how it could compete effectively with private cars.

  • Destructivity has become the guiding dogma. No wonder the US is so far behind first world and even developing countries by so many measures. Time to face the new reality.

  • cjstephens

    Once again, Angie Schmitt thinks that the only good reason to support a transit plan is if those meany Republicans are against it. As the recent vote in Nashville showed, even urban Democrats can smell when an overpriced transit plan stinks. Is it possible that maybe, just maybe, the plan that is being proposed is a boondoggle? And maybe, just maybe, Republicans have seen too many cost-prohibitive under-utilized light rail projects fail in other areas? But no, Ms. Schmitt clearly knows better and we must never oppose any kind of funding from any source if it’s going to be spent in the name of transit. Budgets? Who needs ’em?

  • Eric Talbot

    Spending on public transportation in this country will soon come to a complete halt, as communities across the nation vote projects down, as Nashville did in early May, 2018, and as surely the Republican Legislature in North Carolina will, to put a complete stop to this one. Only a few of our largest cities like New York and Chicago will continue to spend public dollars on mass transit of ANY KIND – be it BUS, RAIL or PARATRANSIT. The wave of the future is RIDE SHARES like UBER, LYFT and other similar operations. RIDE SHARE is THE new form of PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION. It’s awesome to think how much our state and local governments will be able to save as they eagerly line up to abandon their bus and train lines.

  • newtonmarunner

    Having reread the article, and posted downstream about the costs/rider, I think the bigger issue here isn’t so much the cost-effectiveness (which I think needs work) but the Constitution. That the voters approved a ballot measure should override the merits of whether or not the project is cost-effective (which on a cost per rider basis, it isn’t even by American high construction costs at nearly $100K/rider).

  • Eric Talbot

    Spending on TRADITIONAL, OLD-FASHIONED public transportation in this country is rapidly going to come to a nearly complete halt, as communities across the nation vote down one big-dollar transit project after another, as Nashville just did, theirs in early May 2018, and as forecast in this article, the North Carolina State Legislature will, to put a complete stop to this Research Triangle project.

    Only three or four of our largest cities like New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago will continue to spend public taxpayer dollars on traditional mass transit of ANY KIND – BUS, RAIL or PARATRANSIT.

    THE public transit wave of the future is RIDE SHARE like UBER, LYFT and other similar operations. RIDE SHARE is THE new PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION.

    It’s awesome to think how much money our federal, state and local governments are going to be able to save as, one after another, they abandon and dismantle their bus and train systems.

    We are very fortunate to be living in such a progressive and forward-thinking country!

  • cjstephens

    I think you’re missing the point: local voters passed a ballot measure to approve their chunk of the funding. That doesn’t obligate the entire state to contribute to the project. It looks like the majority in the state legislature isn’t on board with this project and are trying to stave off a project whose costs are likely to balloon. That doesn’t make them the regressive monsters the author is trying to depict.

  • newtonmarunner

    Name one place in the world — anywhere — that has replaced LRVs with bus rapid transit.

  • Eric Talbot

    Spending on TRADITIONAL, OLD-FASHIONED public transportation in this country is rapidly going to come to a nearly complete halt, as communities across the nation vote down one big-dollar transit project after another, as Nashville just did, theirs in early May 2018, and as forecast in this article, the North Carolina State Legislature will, to put a complete stop to this Research Triangle project.

    Only three or four of our largest cities like New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago will continue to spend public taxpayer dollars on traditional mass transit of ANY KIND – BUS, RAIL or PARATRANSIT.

    THE public transit wave of the future is RIDE SHARE like UBER, LYFT and other similar operations. RIDE SHARE is THE new PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION.

    It’s awesome to think how much money our federal, state and local governments are going to be able to save as, one after another, they abandon and dismantle their bus and train systems.

    We are very fortunate to be living in such a progressive and forward-thinking country!

  • Eric Talbot

    It began to happen all across the United States and Great Britain in the years immediately preceding and then at a rapidly accelerating pace after the end of World War II, to where the U.S. had discontinued virtually all its inner city rail services (with the exception of the two or three largest cities) by the mid 1950s.

  • newtonmarunner

    I think NC needs to get construction costs down to around at most $55K/rider before they proceed. This is similar to what NYC needs to do with the Second Ave. Subway Extension to East Harlem, which now costs about $60K/rider. Won’t be easy, as the rail is along an Amtrak trench (but the route is good) and FRA turns everything to $hit. Ask Boston about the Green Line Extension.

  • CeeTee55

    In general, if the modern-day Republicans oppose something, it’s probably worthwhile, if they support something, it’s probably deleterious.

  • CeeTee55

    Cool sarcasm.

  • CeeTee55

    Just a paid shill.

  • Eric Talbot

    Thank you – deeply felt.

  • cjstephens

    … and thinking like that is how we end up with more Trump.

  • crazyvag

    Funding aside, does anyone else think that the route is horrible? $2.5 billion for an 18-mile route that connects points that are only 10 miles apart?

  • CeeTee55

    Their arguments cannot be taken in good faith. Have any statewide or nationwide office-holding Republicans ever seen any public transportation project they’ve liked in the past two decades?

    We know Republicans don’t like them due to ideological and cultural reasons. Therefore, we can simply take a mental shortcut and dismiss any arguments they raise out-of-hand. Arguments against specific projects from Neutral or Democratic-leaning sources can be considered.

  • cjstephens

    Off the top of my head, I can think of a few big transportation projects Republicans have liked. When Mike Bloomberg was still a Republican, he devoted something like a billion dollars to extend the 7 train to the far west side. Before that, George Pataki kept trying to push for a high speed rail like to connect the city with upstate (the plan died a quiet death). I haven’t done the research, but would it be safe to assume that Republicans in Florida and Texas have been supportive of the new privately funded rail projects that are actually making progress in those two states.

    Republicans don’t hate trains (or streetcars or buses). They hate out-of-control blank-check mega-projects that have dubious ROI. Yes, they can be just as guilty as the Democrats when it comes to spending (hello, DOD budget), but both parties are just as guilty there if you look back for the past few decades. To say that Republicans don’t like transit projects for cultural and ideological reasons shows that you don’t really understand Republican culture or ideology. Maybe you should try to meet some Republicans. We can be really nice. And only listening to Democratic-leaning sources means living in an echo chamber (neutral? No such thing).

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