Some Triangle politicians continue to push for a new taxpayer-funded regional passenger rail system. Adrian Moore, vice president for policy at the Reason Foundation, says passenger rail makes no sense for most American communities, including North Carolina’s Triangle region. During a recent visit to Raleigh, Moore discussed passenger rail with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Kokai: In general, light rail, passenger rail, these rail schemes, they don’t tend to work in the U.S., do they?

Moore: No, they don’t tend to work well in the U.S. We don’t have the right kinds of cities, and we don’t have the culture of travel that lends itself to that mode of transportation.

… I pose to people a thought experiment. Think, if you can, of anything out there in your life where we have said, “Oh, you know that thing we used to do 100 years ago? That’s way better than what we’re doing now. We need to go back to that.” Let’s go back to 100-year-old cameras. No. Let’s go back to 100-year-old medicine. No. Let’s go back to 100-year-old housing. No. Wait. Nothing.

There’s nothing where we want to go back to the technology of 100 years ago, except in transportation, where there’s this romantic notion that we should go back to the technology that worked great 100 years ago and give up the superior technology we’ve developed meanwhile.

Kokai: Your thought experiment makes sense, I think, to most of us. So why is there that disconnect? Because there are a lot of people who think, “You know, train travel, passenger rail, that sounds like a good idea, especially with all this congestion we’re dealing with and all the people moving to the area.” Why do we have this disconnect?

Moore: There are two strands that I see in sort of the motives for why people support this. One is the kind of … romanticized notion that you just described. In general, polling for “Do you like the idea of having a light rail line you could ride to work or to shopping on the weekends,” people say yes, because the notion of this thing makes a lot of sense to people. It’s like, oh, I can imagine myself using that, and that would be great.

That doesn’t line up with what actually happens. So then a city builds it, and, inevitably, almost without fail, in dozens and dozens of systems built around this nation, the number of people who actually then proceed to ride the train falls way short of the people who were polled who said they would ride the train, because reality has this nasty way of interfering with our romantic notions of the world.

So it’s not very practical. You think about a train. It goes in a straight line, and it’s only convenient for things that are right on that train line. And if you think about your life, … pick a major road in the city you live in, and think about how many of the destinations [you] go to in a month are on that road. That’s what a train line is like; it’s like one road. And my guess is, most of the time you’re not going repeatedly to places that are on one road. You don’t live and work on the same road. It just doesn’t connect. We don’t live that kind of linear life. So it doesn’t match reality.

And then there’s the other track of support for light rail, which is straightforward. Look, cars are just evil. They cause pollution. They cause congestion. They cause sprawl. They are the root of so many environmental and social problems. Therefore, we need to go back to this 100-year-old technology because the new technology which we’ve invented is bad, and I have a crusade against it.

Kokai: You touched on this with the comment about cars being bad. Even those who don’t necessarily think cars are bad think we have too many of them on our roads, and that light rail or passenger rail is a way to help deal with all of the congestion we have and the pollution that the cars create. Does it do that?

Moore: No, it doesn’t. … If I take this, you know, this part of town where there is a major arterial road going into the city center, and there’s a light rail line, you can say, “Well, some people who used to drive that arterial now ride this light rail line, so congestion is [better] on that road.” Never mind that congestion in the city as a whole did not go down because of that light rail line.

The question is kind of one of balance. I mean, in a sense, if light rail didn’t consume so many resources, it might not be such a bad thing. But in cities that have rail transit, you have typically on the order of somewhere between 25 and 50 percent of all the transportation spending in those cities going to the transit system. And those transit systems are carrying, generally, 2 or 3 percent of travel. Now, it doesn’t take a great brain to realize that if you’re spending 25 to 50 percent of the money on 2 or 3 percent of the users, that means you’re spending 50 to 70 percent of the money on the system that’s carrying 98 percent of the users. And that system is not sustainable. You’re going to have a collapse.

So in that way, transit actually makes congestion worse because it uses so many resources for so few people. It means there [are] fewer resources for the system that’s actually carrying everybody, which is the roads, and the roads get worse as a result.

Kokai: Some of the supporters of transit will look at other communities that have transit systems and say, “Look, it works here.” What are they missing? What’s the part of the picture that they’re missing when they look at some other community and desire to have a train system just like that?

Moore: Well, I mean, they’re missing any kind of facts. They’re saying, “Well, look, it looks cool. Look at how pretty that train is. Look at those nice mixed-use apartments built beside it. Look, there’s transit-oriented development. Look how happy the people riding transit are.”

What they’re ignoring is the reality I just described, that it’s great — Portland, awesome — except they’re still spending 45 percent of their money on a system that’s carrying 5 percent of their travelers. That is eventually going to come to an end. It just can’t be sustained.

As the rest of the system begins to break down because it has to carry 90 percent of the people with 40 percent of the money, or 50 percent of the money, it just can’t be sustained that way. And so, they’re just overlooking the realities behind the shiny train. The shiny train kind of catches the eye and dominates the mind.

Kokai: In the time that we have remaining, a lot of people see in this [Triangle] area, and in the Charlotte area as well, there is a lot of congestion, and something needs to be done. What should we be doing, other than looking at these nice, shiny trains?

Moore: The No. 1 thing is, in no other place do we assume that you should not expand when demand expands. This idea that you can’t expand the road system is laughable. You always hear, well, if you add more lanes to the roads then you just get more travel and it just fills up and you wind up with congestion just the same. But there’s more people traveling, you know? I mean, it’s just, yeah, it’s like saying, well, if you build a second store and that store is busy on the weekends, too, you haven’t made any progress. Well, twice as many people are going to the store and buying goods. More people are on the roads. That means more people want and find it economically valuable to travel.

So one thing is build the roads that you need to build for actual growth and demand. And, frankly, we have a problem: The way we pay for roads is a lousy way, with this gas tax. It’s very hidden; nobody knows what they pay, nobody understands what they’re paying for. I think a more transparent, direct — not … just simple tolling, but a better way to pay directly for the roads, where we actually pay for what we use — would make people, I think, make a lot better transportation decisions, and make it easier to pay for the system that we actually use.