Affordable Leaves the Station

American philosopher Eric Hoffer would have celebrated his 120th birthday last week, had he not died just shy of 85. Among his memorable insights, he noted: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

His intuition came to mind as I read one sentence tucked neatly into a letter from Durham Area Designers to GoTriangle suggesting improvements to the station design.

“Faced with an appealing and comfortable station, ‘choice’ travelers are not only willing to take transit, but also to pay a higher fare and tolerate longer wait times.” (Choice travelers are those who have other options for getting where they want to go, as opposed to those who don’t have access to other forms of transportation.)

The letter rightly pointed out that the platform shelter pictured in the conceptual designs presented to the public weren’t practical. The drawings featured a gull wing concept — the outer edge of the roof higher than the inner edge, with the two roof panels forming a vee-shape. Shade would be minimal, and the slightest breeze would blow rain onto the people standing on the platform. Any water landing on the roof would pool in the vee, eventually corroding the panels and leaking onto the platform. We learned that lesson with the roofline of Chapel Hill Police Headquarters.

I have no quibble with the Durham design group’s contention that an aesthetically pleasing station will draw riders who wouldn’t take the more plebian bus.

Because isn’t that what won over the majority of county commissioners who voted for light rail despite the staggering debt it would inflict on taxpayers — the hope that light rail would bring economic development and concomitant tax revenue to the county? We can’t get that kind of revenue boost if we intend to attract low-wealth residents and riders.

An uncrowded train gliding into a clean, elegant station would appeal to the upscale residents we hope to entice to Chapel Hill and Durham who will pay taxes on high-end housing and have plenty of discretionary income leftover to spend on pricey restaurants and theater tickets. Chapel Hill and Durham then would have more money to invest in infrastructure and amenities that we wouldn’t be able to afford if tax dollars were less free-flowing.

All of us knew that all along. And yet among the selling points some elected officials touted were affordable transit for the working class and affordable housing near train stations. Neither of which will come to pass, and now that the light rail seems to have picked up momentum, everyone has quietly dropped those talking points.

Which brings me back to Hoffer’s wisdom. When the light-rail movement became too expensive, it morphed into a sales and marketing business. The lack of transparency turned it into a racket.
— Nancy Oates

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1 Comment

  1. Plurimus

     /  August 2, 2018

    Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor!