Hicks: Let’s not ride on expensive trains to nowhere

Apr. 17, 2013 @ 07:57 PM

This April 1, the Durham County government played a costly April Fool’s joke on Durham County citizens, raising the county sales tax 25 percent. The tax was sold to the voters as a transit tax. Its main goal is to partially fund the construction and operation of a multibillion dollar light rail system connecting Durham and Chapel Hill (and Raleigh should they vote to join the project).

Advocates claimed that the N.C. Department of Transportation would provide a $465 million dollar subsidy for the project and that the federal government would provide an additional $926 million dollar handout.

Back in 2011, the Durham County Republican Party warned voters that it was ludicrous to bank on state or federal handouts in the current economic environment. As the Durham GOP chairman, I warned on UNC-TV’s Black Issues Forum that it was unreasonable to assume that the state and federal governments would continue to fund such extravagant projects.  Mayor Bell’s recent meetings with Gov. Pat McCrory, N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger and N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis confirm our predictions. State subsidies were a fantasy.

One of the primary reasons that the state government is unwilling to fund the Trains to Nowhere project is that they cannot justify spending state funds to subsidize a project that does not ease traffic congestion. That’s right. Our transit planners had to admit that the purpose of their multi-billion dollar gold-plated trains is not to ease traffic congestion.  The transit planners claimed that each light-rail vehicle would remove at least 60 cars from the road. With initial plans for 15 vehicles and over a billion dollars in cost, that comes to over a million dollars per car. (Do you want to sell them your car?) Does this really sound like careful stewardship of the public purse?

If not congestion, what does drive this project? The main purpose is to spur high-density real estate development along the train corridor. You can take the Democrats out of New York City and San Francisco, but you can’t take the love of dense urban warrens out of the Democrats.

The Durham County Republican Party also warned in 2011 that the costs of profligate transit projects like light rail would drain funds from core, albeit grossly inefficient, transit services, such as buses. Dollars haven’t even started flowing yet to build tracks, and already we are hearing dire warnings of funding shortfalls for our bus system. Still more new taxes are coming our way to bolster our inefficient bus lines. Does the drop in revenues for our buses indicate that even more buses are running empty?

The current state of affairs was predictable for anyone who didn’t let big government ideology overwhelm common sense. The GOP fights for common-sense governance. What can we do immediately to improve Durham transit? A simple first step is to modify the focus of the Durham vehicle-for-hire regulations. Currently, one of the primary goals of the regulations is to guarantee that taxi fares remain too high to be an affordable transportation option for Durham’s poorer citizens. The regulations should focus instead on safety. We propose that Durham drop its cap on permits to operate taxis.

Another step is to use vans rather than full-size buses to extend Durham transit services to poorly served neighborhoods. These steps are not as grandiose as billion dollar gold-plated trains, but the people of Durham need effective solutions, not extravagant money holes.

We encourage the Durham County Government to suspend the new transit tax. We suggest that local officials take this opportunity to commit themselves to a transportation policy for the County of Durham based on real world fiscal constraints and on the actual needs of the citizens of the county.  

 

Ted Hicks is chairman of the Durham County Republican Party.