Where are pros and cons in light-rail decision making? – Terry Vance

Chapel Hill government is stuck in a process that is taking a devastating toll on our town.

Developers and landowners get their applications approved while concerns about environmental and architectural soundness are minimized, to say nothing about whether projects enhance quality of life for our citizens. The town manager and staff adhere to the myth that development shores up the tax base and creates jobs, despite evidence to the contrary.

David Shreve – a development expert who studied Charlottesville, a university town like Chapel Hill – gave a lecture showing why presumed benefits of development are illusory. The Chapel Hill News summarized Shreve’s account as follows: “Grow because you want to, not because you think it’s going to create jobs or shore up the tax base.” But despite reasoned research, facts get hidden by myths bolstering our faulty process. Chapel Hill’s uniqueness is being undermined by disturbing development, high tax rates, and lack of affordable housing. Our government continues to waste money on propaganda to promote the myth that ever more development is better.

A recent example is the March 13 Town Council meeting. Putatively, it concerned Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit station design. Seven patterns emerged.

▪ Misdirection and waste of taxpayers’ money. Staff handouts noted that, since the Feds gave $1.69 million to GoTriangle for DOLRT station planning, the “town is making an in kind contribution of staff hours.” This made it appear both that DOLRT was already approved and the public hearing would concern station design. In fact, little time was spent on station design and much time was given to infomercials promoting DOLRT.

▪ Presenting only one side of an argument. There was no comparison of light rail vs. alternatives such as rapid bus transit. Presenters implied we could have it all.

▪ Hiding financial realities. DOLRT will cost at least $3.3 billion (acknowledged when a citizen asked what the loan interest would be), and there likely will be cost overruns for a system which wouldn’t be functioning until 2029 (Flyvbjerg and colleagues found 45 percent to be the average overrun for light rail in a sample of 58 rail projects.) The debt wouldn’t be paid off until 2062.

▪ Avoiding inconvenient truths. We weren’t told that a train would take significantly longer than a bus going to the same place, since buses are faster and have more flexible routes. We weren’t told that the rail line would serve very few Orange County residents.

▪ Concealing the main beneficiaries. These include UNC, NCCU, Duke (all of which pay no taxes) GoTriangle, Gateway, Civitech, and landowners whose property along the 17-mile rail line would greatly increase in value.

▪ Promoting fantasy benefits. Presenters claimed light rail would promote affordable housing; they included slides picturing affordable housing that would magically grow along the rail lines. Councilwoman Nancy Oates publicly questioned the public cost of providing such housing.

▪ Minimizing citizen input. Citizens got 3 minutes each for their input. The majority who spoke favored enhanced transit but realized the original light rail plan of 2012 is no longer viable.

These seven patterns underlie our government’s faulty process. The staff’s lack of transparency is barely noticed anymore. What nourishes these patterns are the political power of the few and the staff’s mission to get projects approved, worthy or not. The staff instead should research and present the pros and cons of a project to help council members and the public make informed decisions. Provide leadership that supports smart development. Replace our town manager with one who rejects this faulty process, refuses to waste our resources, values transparency, and respects our uniquely educated and resourceful citizens.