Financial Realities of Light Rail

March 22, Chapel Hill News

In their column (CHN, March 10), Eric Ghysels and Robert Healy addressed a troubling aspect of the proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project; namely, the refusal of many civic leaders to adjust to changed realities.

Like many people in Orange County, I support public transit and voted for the 2012 transit sales tax to help finance meaningful transit projects, including, potentially, light rail. Several years later, the county seems no closer to better transit, with the light-rail project instead having become the proverbial tail that wags the dog.

Once the legislature capped state support for the project, it lost any real path to financial viability. Yet project supporters, including GoTriangle, refuse to acknowledge that. Rather than adapting and pursuing the best options suited to the available funds, supporters have focused on one mode and one route to the exclusion of all others.

Look at how significant aspects of the financing plan now change from one public presentation to another, with major costs being obscured while revenues are inflated. The goal seems to have little to do with improving transit and everything with rapidly obtaining a blank check from local taxpayers so as to preserve both a recalcitrant bureaucracy and taxpayer-provided opportunities for private profit along the rail corridor.

Consider, too, the recent station planning workshops. While the sessions discussed many tantalizing community benefits, it was clear – but clearly unstated – that obtaining any benefits would require public funds beyond those needed for the line itself. Like any sleight-of-hand trick, the effect was to direct attention away from what actually was happening.

Acknowledging change is never easy, but refusing to do so is even worse. Unless civic leaders recognize how much the realities surrounding the light rail project have changed, the project will obstruct meaningful progress toward improved local transit options for years to come.


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