Light Rail Plans Bring Controversy to NC’s Biggest Cities

Wed November 24, 2004 - Southeast Edition

CHARLOTTE, NC (AP) Construction has begun on the first leg of Charlotte’s light rail system –– a 10-mi. (16.1 km) stretch between downtown Charlotte and suburban Pineville dubbed the South Corridor.

One hundred fifty miles west, in the state’s second-largest metropolitan area, efforts are under way to connect Raleigh, Durham and Research Triangle Park by commuter rail.

The projected cost for the two projects is stunning.

The price tag for the South Corridor alone is $371 million and is but a fraction of the overall bill to construct Charlotte’s new mass transit system, which will have spokes running from downtown to five different points on the perimeter of the city’s sprawling development. Current cost estimates for the entire project range as high as $6 billion.

Brad Schulz, spokesman for the Triangle Transit Authority, said the Triangle’s rail project is expected to cost about $640 million. Scaled back from 35 miles to 28 miles, the system will utilize diesel-powered trains instead of electric-powered ones.

Charlotte is funding its system with large state and federal grants and with tens of millions of dollars annually from a half-cent transit sales tax approved by voters in 1998.

By contrast, the Triangle project gets about $6 million to $8 million in local funding from a rental car tax in Wake, Orange and Durham counties.

With that kind of money on the line, there are detractors.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions about rail transit, but one thing we know for sure is that neither project will significantly reduce traffic congestion,” said John Hood of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Raleigh. “We know that because the people who are building them have said so.”

A traffic study released in September by the Texas Transportation Institute showed that the average peak-period commuter experienced 45 hours of delays in Charlotte in 2002 –– well above the 25-hour average for medium-sized cities and on par with delays in much larger cities like Denver, Phoenix and Seattle.

In Raleigh-Durham, also classified as medium-sized, delays averaged 25 hours.

Also, a recent study by a Seattle-based environmental group, Northwest Environment Watch, concluded that Charlotte has the worst sprawl in the country when compared to 15 similar-sized, fast-growing U.S. cities.

City councilman Patrick Mumford said light rail has never been offered as a panacea for Charlotte’s woes.

“During the times when the roads are most heavily traveled, we feel that mass transit can help alleviate problems,” he said. “If we can help traffic move during morning and afternoon peak times, it’s not only good for commuters but also for business.”

Former city councilman Mike Castano believes it’s more efficient to use public money to improve Charlotte’s roads. “I would say 98 percent of the residents will never use mass transit,” he said. “They use cars.”

Castano predicts light rail will be an expensive boondoggle.

“The figures just don’t add up,” said Castano, who fronts a group called C-FAST that opposes light rail spending. “There are thousands of citizens who feel like the decision has already been made to go ahead with light rail.”

Charlotte’s South Corridor line is to feature 15 stations, about half of them with park-and-ride lots. Due to be finished in 2006, the first spoke in the city’s system (which will include light rail and high-speed busways along other corridors) is projected to carry about 9,000 riders per day, escalating to about 18,300 by 2025, local transit officials have said.

By comparison, some 54,000 riders already use city buses each day.

Meanwhile, officials in the Triangle have estimated daily ridership on their rail system at 14,300 when it opens in 2008. It is expected to rise to 21,800 per day by 2025, Schulz said.

David Hartgen, a professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, questions light rail’s benefits.

“Even if it is built, 97 percent of the travel will be on the streets,” he said. “So if we spent 5 percent of the money to improve intersections, we would see a lot more benefits.”

Ron Tober, chief executive officer of the Charlotte Area Transit System, said that’s too simple a solution to a complex problem.

“The critics say this just won’t do enough to relieve traffic congestion, so why not just build more roads,” he said.

Tober argues that experience has shown building roads is not the way out of a traffic crisis –– that cities need to offer multiple modes of transportation to residents.

“No one says if we build more roads we will solve all the traffic congestion. It’s one way of solving it,” he said.