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August 19, 2006

Death of a Train Line

Yesterday, the regional transportation provider for North Carolina's Triangle area announced that it had ceased efforts to receive full federal funding for a rail project that has been in planning for more than a decade. Because of declining ridership estimates, increasing construction costs, and powerful anti-transit opposition, the project, creating a DMU line between Raleigh and Durham, has been brought to its knees. It serves as a case lesson for the mistakes that can be made in the development of a major new transit project, anywhere in the United States.

The Triangle Transit Authority's (TTA) project, which has been in development at least since 1992, had reached the 100% design stage by last year, meaning that construction could begin as soon as financing from the Federal Transit Administration were approved. The TTA had already acquired a large percentage of parcels along the line, and its funding from state and local governments had been lined up. However, because the agency requested a 60% share of total funding from the federal government, the line's development hinged on Washington's approval.

Ridership estimates, made nearer to the turn of the century, envisioned a daily ridership of 25,000 people, but that number has been skimmed down significantly in recent years - to 10,000 - as rules for estimates have changed. Meanwhile, partially because of a high demand in Asia for concrete and steel, construction costs have risen dramatically - from an estimate of around $400 million in 1999 to $800 million in 2006 for an 8-mile shorter line.

Today, TTA faces significant obstacles to the development of its project, even though the federal government has contributed over $100 million to its coffers over the past few years. Not only have more stringent requirements made it more difficult to achieve financing for transit projects under the Bush administration, but competition among cities for transportation dollars has become intense as more and more regions see the value in making investment in mass transit rather than roads.

Meanwhile, conservatives in this relatively moderate state have been able to take advantage of the long, drawn-out process to exploit the plan's vulnerabilities, notably its escalating costs, need for land acquisition, and inability to serve all of the region's centers, most importantly (to them), the airport. Their shrill and misguided criticism has focused on the fact that the line would cost thousands of dollars for each rider it would serve, and they have emphasized the fact that North Carolina's citizens seem to prefer living in a sprawled-out environment. The federal government's limited interest in helping move along a project that has taken a very large number of tax dollars already, as well as miserable support from the state's two Republican senators, Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr, certainly haven't added up to make the TTA project fund-worthy.

The result for the region is yet another delay in providing significant investment in transit. If TTA cannot work to acquire more funds from local sources - whether from developers or taxes - it will have to implement an entirely new process to develop solutions for the increasing traffic problems in the rapidly growing area. The problem extends to people who have been forced out to make way for the line, and to those who have worked stridently in recent years to build transit-friendly developments along the line. Meanwhile, congestion along I-40 continues and options for public transit are not just limited, they're pitiful.

Problems in the Triangle have developed from the inability for the region's decision-makers to fully support the project. For the majority of the time the project has been in development (since 1992), skepticism has reigned in the minds of the mayors and city councillors of the major cities: Raleigh, Durham, Cary, and Chapel Hill. Most have been unwilling to suggest that growth be concentrated in the region's center cities, even as there's been out-of-control sprawl throughout the area and interest in downtown development around the country has blossomed. Most politicians, including the two senators, have bought full-heartedly the concept that North Carolinians simply don't like density, ignoring the reality that density is impossible without strong mass transit opportunities. No one remembers that New York City's Upper West Side was back-country before the first subway line was completed in 1904.

The lack of political will has meant that local leaders haven't pushed for congressional appropriations for pet projects like their co-workers have in Florida to develop a $1 billion commuter rail system there. Freight railroads, which control the corridor on which TTA's proposal would have been constructed, have not been pressured to share the tracks with TTA, and as a result, the project's costs were increased by more than a third because of the need to construct a second dedicated track. And local corporations and institutions (including Duke and North Carolina State Universities, RBC Centura, Progress Energy, Cisco Systems, and GSK)- whose buildings for the most part lie just off the line - have done almost nothing to support the project, with the exception of IBM's donation of land for one of the 12 proposed stations.

On Monday, the Triangle's leaders will again recognize the situation in which they have been placed, that is, in a growing region with few transportation options and limited ability to limit car usage and develop densely. And they will claim, as they have again and again for more than a decade, that they are interested in working towards developing mass transit options. Unless they are struck by a sudden change in motivation, however, their claims will be futile. They will do nothing to increase local financing for transit, which currently comes from a rental car tax alone. They will also be unable to propose any serious transportation alternatives that cost less than TTA's current proposal, and they will resign themselves to thinking that the Triangle simply isn't dense enough, pretending that density will come naturally, without government interference.

North Carolina's experience has demonstrated the importance in developing a regional consensus when exploring mass transit options. The Triangle's leaders have not established a local tax that can truly support transportation, nor have leaders emphasized directing future growth towards transit-oriented developments. In the meantime, the federal government cannot be relied upon to provide a steady source of funding, even for projects that it has already provided significant amounts of dollars. The Triangle, then, stands at the crossroads it encountered ten years ago, and the same one that dozens of communities around the country share. How should mobility be improved? Where should new growth be placed? How can the region become more cosmopolitan?

As of yesterday, the Triangle will again be following the status quo, promoting car-biased development alone.

Post Author: ysf | 01:35 PM | Link | TrackBacks

I was a little surprised but not totally shocked by the failure of NC's two senators to get the funding. I think the reality of NC's politics is to simply avoid spending money on big-ticket items unless it is related to (1) NASCAR or (2) Billy Graham.

I mean, really, how many states can you name, besides NC, where public school teachers require food stamps just to survive? Did you think in such an environment there would be the overwhelming public support such a transportation system needed to get started?

One reason I left transportation planning is that I do not have the patience to wait a lifetime to see my ideas grow into fruition. And that was in New York, a public transportation-friendly town. In places like NC, it may require three lifetimes.

I think you can achieve a greater level of success and personal fulfillment by concentrating your activism in places than can appreciate your efforts. This blog indicates your choices can be vast. Places like NY, Chicago, Philadelphia, DC/Baltimore, Miami, San Diego, and San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose come immediately to mind. IMO, life is too short to bop one's head against a windmill.

Posted by: michael tenenbaum at August 19, 2006 04:40 PM

You are absolutely right. This is an absolute failure of our two senators to bring North Carolina tax money back to North Carolina. You pay federal taxes everytime you gas up your car. Unfortunately, North Carolina tax dollars will probably go to Hillary Clinton in New York because our Senators are too lazy and partisan to claim what is rightfully ours.

Posted by: Bill Phelps at August 21, 2006 12:01 PM

I share the frustration of those more far-sighted people in the Triangle. Why do some urban areas succeed and others fail in getting these transportation projects started? The same obstacles faced citizens in Salt Lake City, Minneapolis, Denver, Phoenix, and Houston who wanted transportation options beyond rubber tires on pavement. These urban areas prevailed over the opposition, while Austin, Kansas City, Detroit, and now Raleigh-Durham have failed.

Everywhere and every time non-highway transit projects are proposed, significant opposition must be countered. This opposition is made up of powerful components, including auto manufacturers and dealers, oil interests, highway contractors, insurance companies, and yes, even State DOT's and Politicians. It is not your typical conservative versus liberal issue. Opposition comes from all sides.

In all the success stories noted above, visionaries teamed up and countered the opposition with facts and examples, until the goal was reached. That team of citizens, politicians, and Transportation Officials must be strong and relentless.

It must be also noted, too, that money is available. For every Raleigh-Durham, Austin, Detroit, or Kansas City that says no, there is a Dallas, or Minneapolis, or Denver, or even Albuquerque who says yes. Money is being provided to those communities who have demonstrated that there is a committed team in place.

Getting that first transit option to highway in operation, either Light Rail or Commuter Rail, is the hardest part. Once people see that option in action, the question changes from, "Will anyone ride" to "When are we getting ours?" The shrill naysayers have no answer to that question!

Posted by: Rip at August 23, 2006 10:53 AM

Well, now I can scratch Raliegh/Durham off of my "places I'd like to live one day" list. There is unfortunately a trend with Southern cities refusing to cope properly with their record growth. The Triangle is a wonderful place to live but it's liveability erodes further with every new car that enters its streets.

Let's hope they'll get their act together soon as well as other Southern cities.

Posted by: abe at September 2, 2006 01:42 PM


This is related to the freight tunnel we had discussed. One of the honchos at RPA spoke to our trade/networking group today, LIMBA (Long Island means business assn.). In the official email from Ernie Fasio, our chairman, Ernie reported the following:

Our speaker was supposed to be the president of the Regional Plan Association, Bob Yaro. Unfortunately he could not attend but was successful in finding another person in the organization to make a John Adkins, who leads the RPA efforts in Connecticut, was our speaker instead.

In June the RPA convened a mayors conference that took place at Adelphi. That conference was very enlightening to the mayors of Long Island. Mayor Paul Pontieri of Patchogue was in the room today and he had attended that conference. Mr Pontieri offerred that the conference was useful in seeing how other villages approached various problems. Each village has its own quirks and traditions but there are always some things that transcend. I suggested that a broader spectrum of the population be asked to participate in an open forum that would address many issues of planning, and LIMBA should host such a meeting. Having a good idea of what may be done will give the people who have the trainning in planning, to create what is perceived as being needed. I asked Mr. Adkins to bring that thought to the RPA board, and be one of the major players.

Mr. Adkins limited his remarks to a few chosen subjects, but we did spend some time on an important LIMBA goal, enhancing rail freight. The RPA is enthusiastic about Congressman Nadler's proposed cross harbor rail tunnel. He also thought the freight transload centers were a reasonable answer to the problem of abandoned rail spurs.

The RPA is predicting 4 million new people in the tri-state region over the next 20 years, therefor the emphasis on transportation is in the forefront. Of course another LIMBA initiative, the Shreham to New Haven ferry is an important part of those efforts. These projects are needed for the economy and the environment, and now with Homeland Security at risk, they are imperitive.
Ernie Fazio

Posted by: mike tenenbaum at September 15, 2006 04:29 PM
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