Light Rail, Bus, and Costs

I recently wrote a post about the possible benefits of BRT in Durham/Chapel Hill now that the light rail is dead. Bus Rapid Transit could be a great solution for the region and a great incremental step in creating connectivity through public transit.

One factor that I looked at was the cost. Bus Rapid Transit lines have the potential to be much less costly than Light Rail. The Durham-Orange Light Rail was projected to cost $2.5 billion. Throughout the process, there was a lot of handwringing about the high cost of this project.

$2.5 billion is a lot of money. However, I wanted to briefly put that in context. Let's look at another project in our region: the famed completion of the I-540 loop in Wake County. For those who are not aware, I-540 is in the process of being "completed" as a beltway loop around Raleigh:


The cost of adding JUST this section of expressway to complete the loop? $2.2 billion. This is only one of MANY road projects that facilitate the movement of private cars around the area. It is a small fraction of what is spent on roads here locally. However, there is very little opposition or vocal handwringing about these projects. You don't see local media outlets talking about the "540 Boondoggle".

We continually spend billions of dollars on projects like this that actually make sprawl worse. Even in my personal life I have already heard people talking about the possibility of moving to Garner, Holly Springs, or Knightdale because "it will be easier to commute once 540 is complete". That is a completely rational thought to have, but creates a more dispersed metro area.

It's easy to see that a project like this causes people to move further out, which increases the amount of driving, which then clogs up the expressways all over again! Projects like this don't solve congestion, they just encourage sprawl, which I have already written about the perils of, extensively.

Across the state, NCDOT spends between $5 billion and $7 billion yearly with nearly 80% of that going to building and maintaining motor vehicle infrastructure. About 2.5% of that goes to supporting public transit (bus, light rail, etc).

Meanwhile, the Light Rail was killed, ultimately due to partners like Duke and NC Railroad not stepping up, but the project faced headwinds for years due to cost. Budget constraints also meant that solutions to bypass Duke were off the table. Meanwhile, the media published opinion pieces like this one as well as reported on the opposition to the project based on cost, without ever comparing it to the amount of spending on road projects.

The Light Rail is dead and a BRT system could be a great solution, especially as Raleigh moves forward with its BRT project. However, when looking at costs this time, I think we have to ask two questions:

1. Are the costs of good public transit that will benefit the city, region, and its residents really too high?

2. Should we be more critical of the high costs for large-scale expressway and other private-car projects that make our cities worse-off in the long run?

In other words, should we spend a bigger portion of our money on transit and a smaller portion on cars?*

I would love to hear your thoughts in the forum thread here!


*Note: a large part of the problem is that there are more federal and state dollars available for road projects than there are for transit projects. We can't control that part, but we can control how we support overall spending. The sources of funding also don't change which projects "make sense" from an overall financial feasibility lense.

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