Opinion: Daily Journal

Spending $4.6 Billion on Rail and Buses Means More, Not Less, Traffic Congestion

This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Dr. Michael Sanera, John Locke Foundation Director of Research and Local Government Studies.

RALEIGH — For some time now, we at the John Locke Foundation have been concerned that Wake County residents and elected officials have been given inaccurate and biased information about proposed transit improvements. The recent Wake County Transit Plan from Triangle Transit Authority and Wake County government is no exception.

In order to rectify this problem, JLF contracted for a study written by Dr. David Hartgen, retired UNC-Charlotte professor of transportation studies, and Thomas Rubin, a certified public accountant and transportation consultant. Based on the reams of data contained in their 75-page report, they conclude: “The Wake Transit Plan ‘is not technically or financially feasible and is unreliable as a basis for decisions regarding transit investments in Wake County.’”

In other words, Wake County’s city and county elected officials who are considering a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for the $4.6 billion bus and rail plan will be making a huge mistake if they make their decisions based on this plan.

Will the TTA plan reduce traffic congestion? No!

Most Wake County residents want to see traffic congestion in the Triangle reduced. Our work commutes would be so much more pleasant if there were fewer traffic jams. But Hartgen and Rubin find that this plan’s spending on commuter and light rail imposes huge costs for little or no reduction in congestion.

The spending for each trip taken by each rail rider is enormous. The cost for each trip by a commuter rail rider is $92, and the cost for each light rail rider trip is $33. One of the reasons for this high cost is that there will be so few rail riders. Why? One of the primary reasons is that according to Hartgen and Rubin, the door-to-door travel time by transit will be well over double the time it takes to make the same trip by auto. Few people will be willing to spend twice the time in a rail car when they can have the convenience and flexibility of their private auto.

Another way to look at the tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars on a rail system is to look at just how few passengers the system will carry in relation to the total trips in the county. The current Wake County transit system carries about 1 percent of all commuter trips. The percentage is much lower than 1 percent when compared with all trips in the county. What happens after the county spends $4.6 billion on increased bus, commuter rail, and light rail? That percentage is likely to decrease. Why? Because the population and ridership projections for the county mean that the population will increase faster than the number of riders using transit. Thus, a lower percentage would be carried by transit.

We must remember that Wake County and the Triangle region, like most other regions that experienced rapid growth following World War II, have a low population density and dispersed businesses. This makes the area ill-suited for rail transit that was effective in high-density cities of the late 19th century. Wake County’s population density ranks 30th lowest out of 34 cities with rail transit. Raleigh is not a late 19th-century “hub-and-spoke” city, where people travel along the spokes to the center city for work and back again. The region is a massive grid where people travel along grid lines to many different parts of the area, never even going near the center city.

Looking at other cities, it is easy to predict that traffic congestion would not decrease after spending $4.6 billion on this plan. Of 22 major cities with rail, only in one does rail carry more than 3 percent of all motorized passenger travel: New York City at 7.35 percent. Additionally, 16 of the 22 carry less than 1 percent of all motorized passenger travel. Even in Portland, Ore., the poster child for rail transit, only 0.85 percent of all motorized passenger travel is by rail. This ranks well behind Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., all of which range between 2 percent and 3 percent.

It would be foolish for the county’s elected officials to follow these cities blindly by spending enormous amounts of taxpayer money on a system that likely will result in increased traffic congestion. For real solutions to the county’s traffic congestion problems, see these John Locke Foundation reports: Conquering Traffic Congestion in the Capital City: More Effective Solutions Than Light Rail and Traffic Congestion in North Carolina: Status, Prospects, and Solutions.