I believe the Red Line offers some great examples why your average run-of-the-mill Progressive with different priorities might think otherwise.
Let's start with three simple questions.
- Should taxpayers give millions of dollars to a private company for something they do every day anyway?
- Should lower income bus riders pay the price for wealthy train riders?
- Should towns support the train at the expense of existing affordable housing?
Let's look at the answers...
Whether your sentiments lie with the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, I'm guessing your answer to the first question is a resounding "NO"...and probably a "HELL NO". Yet, that's exactly what is happening with the Red Line. Taxpayers will be paying for something a private company (Norfolk Southern) does all day, every day as part of their regular business which is building and running trains. Randall O'Toole actually used the word "bribe" at his presentation on Feb 8th - calling the Red Line financing plan a $100 million payoff to Norfolk Southern to get their permission to use the line.
While Mr O'Toole's use of the word "bribe" is obviously just colorful language, slide 20 of the RLRR Project Overview does outline two line items (Main Line Track and Grade Crossings) that add up to well over $100 million. These upgrades benefit Norfolk Southern just as much as any actual fee NS might be paid to use the line. The increase in capacity created by these upgrades benefits not just commuter rail but any freight that goes along the line as well. At earlier meetings during the current Red Line debate these benefits have even been used as a way to brush off Norfolk Southern's concerns as simple negotiating tactics. (Why would they walk away from such a big expenditure on their behalf is the logic.)
During Mr O'Toole's presentation he mentioned this benefit of "double tracking" the line. While that's technically incorrect because the current plan won't in fact double track the entire line, there will be significant new sidings added. If you happened to have attended the Feb 8th meeting you may remember an exchange between Paul Morris from NCDOT and Mr O'Toole on this point. Mr Morris attempted to catch the guest speaker on this technicality about double tracking. However, he did so while completely missing the point. True, the entire line won't be fully double tracked, but the current line has areas where the maximum speed is only 6 miles per hour. The upgrades will remove those bottlenecks by increasing speeds. The new available capacity on this line due to significant new sidings and increased speeds does provide a huge benefit to NS. It is a significant increase in capacity for a private company paid for with tax dollars, and on top of that, the Red Line commuter trains will have to pay $28.1 million more just to use that capacity. (That figure is also on slide 20.)
Next let's look at who this line will really benefit and who pays.
As part of the rebuttal to Mr. O'Toole, a Mr Charles Lind wrote a piece that appeared in several local publications this past week. (See here for the links.) Mr Lind's main point supporting the Red Line seemed to be that wealthy people would ride the train but not the bus. Here's the quote that tells it all.
"the mean earnings of rail commuters were higher than $76,000; the figure for bus riders was less than $14,000."
The underlying implication of this statement is that the wealthy won't ride a bus, but they will ride a train. The fact is, this is simply not true.
I say this is not true because I ride the express buses almost every day to Uptown Charlotte, and they are full. The bus is full of just the type of riders Mr Lind implies will only ride trains. Now, here's the really twisted part. I asked the Red Line website how many of the express bus riders do they expect to be "canibalized" by the train. The answer? "Based upon our modeling runs, the majority of the ridership on the parallel express bus service would shift to the Red Line." Meaning, we're building a train for people who already ride the bus, and those people will shift to riding the train. (Question C-7 at the link.)
If that does not short circuit your brain, this next part will. Who pays for this unnecessary train for wealthy people who supposedly won't ride the bus? The poor who can't afford a car and are forced to ride the bus. That's who.
Just recently CATS announced a proposed fare increase. It will raise an additional $2.5 million per year - most of that coming from lower income riders who make up the bulk of CATS ridership. CATS train building plans between the Red Line and the Blue Line Extension to UNCC will require hundreds of millions in CATS dollars - $113 million for the Red Line alone. To say that CATS is raising fares to build trains is not a stretch or a misdirection. They need the money to do so and an easy way to get it is to get it from people who don't have a choice - bus riders who don't have cars.
Finally, should people who care about the negative impacts to affordable housing stock support a project that will cause significant gentrification to occur around the proposed Red Line stops. The progressive answer is of course "NO".
A look at Davidson, the most progressive town along the line, provides a particularly stark answer. Davidson has an inclusionary zoning ordinance that mandates 12.5% of new development be "affordable" according to Federal guidelines. It was one of the first of its kind in the country and is regularly held up as an example of the town's progressiveness. What happens to the houses not in the town's official affordable housing program - the ones not mandated to stay that way?
A quick look at property records shows dozens of properties in the Davidson station area and adjacent neighborhoods at less than $125,000. Many of those received huge value increases at the last revaluation. If that happens again due to the train and its associated development, many of them would possibly no longer be considered affordable - at least not for their current owners. It's even possible to see that the total affordable housing stock in the station area and adjacent neighborhoods going down or at least being flat due to increasing values.
That's a real scenario in Davidson - a town that really cares about these issues. What happens along the other stops that don't have inclusionary zoning ordinances? Well, I suspect you know the answer.
So, that brings us to the end. This post turned out to be a bit longer than I thought it would. Based on the initial premise that Progressives have to support rail, it should have been very short. However, like most things it takes a while to get to the truth.
I'll leave you with this. If you considder yourself to be a true Progressive, you can sleep well at night knowing there are good reasons to not support this project. It involves big money to big companies, the poor supporting the wealthy, and negative impacts to affordable housing.