RALEIGH — Orange County voters will decide in November whether to raise taxes on themselves to help “invest” $1.4 billion toward construction of 17 miles of transit line that would have a miniscule impact on traffic congestion and air pollution.
Transit supporters don’t highlight this fact. A draft plan written by the area’s transit and regional planning agencies provides glowing verbiage about rail transit’s benefits. “These investments would positively impact traffic congestion,” it proclaims.
But promises of a “positive impact” on congestion have not panned out in other cities that have wasted billions of taxpayer dollars on rail transit. Of the 33 U.S. cities with some form of rail transit, only six account for more than 1 percent of the passenger miles traveled in the region, and 22 carry less than one-half of 1 percent. Does Orange County want to be like San Jose, where rail makes up 0.42 percent of passenger miles traveled? How about Denver (0.44 percent) or Dallas (0.26 percent)?
Perhaps North Carolina is better-suited to rail transit. Some cite Charlotte as a great rail success story that Orange County should follow. But Charlotte’s light rail cost about $561 million — more than double the initial estimates — and accounts for a whopping 0.07 percent of all passenger miles traveled in the region. Has that “investment” significantly reduced traffic congestion and air quality? Hardly.
In addition, ridership on Charlotte’s light rail peaked in July 2008 and has declined almost 15 percent since. It costs taxpayers more than $40 for the average commuter to go to and from work each day. The light rail uses more than twice the energy per passenger mile as a Toyota Prius. Do Orange County residents really want to pay higher sales taxes and vehicle registration fees for abysmal results like this?
Orange County rail transit supporters argue that state and federal taxpayers will pick up 75 percent of the construction costs. In today’s political climate, that is a very risky bet. The U.S. House opposes funding additional rail projects; a recent compromise transportation bill included funding — with tighter eligibility standards — only because of the Senate’s demands.
Given the new standards, Orange County’s size and population density, and the project’s cost, it is unlikely federal funds would be forthcoming. State funds are also questionable. The General Assembly is looking long and hard at funding rail projects, especially as unemployment remains high and state budget dollars scarce.
Wake County commissioners recently cited economic factors, and concerns about high costs and small benefits, in rejecting a plan to place a transit tax on Wake’s ballot. In late July, Atlanta-area voters rejected a proposed 1-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects that many thought were top-heavy on costly transit extensions.
Even Charlotte’s light-rail expansion plans are in trouble. The planned Red Line running north from the Queen City to Iredell County ran into a brick wall when Iredell commissioners voted unanimously to reject a creative financing plan based on tax increment financing. Commissioners also heeded warnings from national experts who questioned the proposal. Meanwhile, the Blue Line running to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte campus is likely to run over budget, if it is funded at all. The city also recently dropped a capital plan that included a proposed $119 million streetcar.
If Orange County voters want a transportation plan that provides relief from traffic congestion, they will vote against new taxes and fee increases. They will send county government planners back to the drawing board. Rail transit will do nothing to address the area’s real transportation needs.
Sanera recently retired as director of research and local government studies at the John Locke Foundation.