Out of Control Policy Blog

Streetsblog Throws Temper Tantrum After Transit Experts Recommend not Building Rail in Wake County, NC

What do you do if you are a rail advocacy group and a national panel of experts has just told you that rail is the wrong solution for a specific area? If you are Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog, you question the merits of the professionals and claim that the Reason Foundation is somehow pulling the strings behind the scenes in a conspiracy theory similar to the one that contends Lee Harvey Oswald was not the only shooter in JFK’s assassination. 

What exactly is Streetsblog talking about? The Wake County Commission is examining how to improve its transit system. (Wake County, NC is home to Raleigh.) Neighboring communities (Chapel Hill in Orange County NC and Durham in Durham County NC) are planning on building a light-rail line between Chapel Hill and Durham. Certain elected officials are also interested in building rail lines between Chapel Hill and Raleigh, and Durham and Raleigh. In order to get some non-political advice, the Wake County Commission brought in three transit experts, Cal Marsella, former Chairman of the Regional Transit District in Denver and current transit consultant, Steve Polzin, Director of Transit Research at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research and Sam Staley, Managing Director of the DeVoe Moore Economic Center at Florida State University 

For some reason Ms. Schmidt is convinced that anybody who does not agree with her is wrong. And she implies that Sam Staley and Steven Polzin are not “independent” professionals. 

Let’s just take a look at the backgrounds. Sam Staley, is Managing Director of the DeVoe Moore Center at Florida State where he teaches urban planning and urban economics classes. He has a PhD in Public Administration with a focus in Urban Planning from Ohio State University and Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Economics. He works with academic planning professionals including the chair of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) light-rail committee. In 2012, he organized first transit conference in Florida State University’s history. Staley also has own blog on Planetizen. 

Steven Polzin has multiple engineering degrees including a PhD in Civil Engineering from Northwestern University. In his previous positions he has served in many roles including as a Senior Rail Planner. Polzin is on the editorial board of the Journal of Public Transportation and serves on several American Public Transit Association and Transportation Research Board Committees including Data Information Systems and Data Requirements and Programs. Polzin and the University of South Florida were recently awarded the honor of writing the Commuting in America series, a publication of the National Academy of Sciences. Polzin also contributes to Planetizen. 

Ms. Schmidt did not complain about Cal Marsella, former Chairman of the Denver Regional Transit District. And with good reason. Rail lobbyists assumed that Marsella who oversaw construction of FastTracks in Denver would support the Wake County train. But instead he agreed with Polzin and Staley that rail is not appropriate for Wake County. It is surely difficult to criticize Marsella who oversaw Denver’s rail system as an anti-rail type. 

And Mr. Marsella is not alone. Another rail friendly transportation planning professor John Pucher also does not think rail in Wake County will work. Pucher teaches at Rutgers but is spending a semester at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He notes, “The commuter rail plan and the light rail plan just don't make sense to me," "It's just so difficult in this very decentralized, very sprawled metropolitan area." And responding to the claim that Wake County officials have deliberately delayed the project “The county commissioners of Wake County, in a way, have done the right thing," Pucher said. "I don't think you can expect the voters to understand all the details and analysis." 

I searched transportation experts—not politicians or industry lobbyists—and could not find a single transportation expert who thinks rail in Wake County is a good idea. Based on that finding, the commissioners did an excellent job—they could not find a transportation research professional who supports rail in Wake County, NC because such people do not exist. Perhaps what Angie Schmidt and others are upset about is not the views of the transportation experts but their inability to strong-arm a community into what appears to be a bad project. However, this is no excuse to throw a temper tantrum and accuse anybody who does not agree with your world-view of being a poopy-head. I look forward to the next Streetsblog column which discusses the facts instead of engaging in conspiracy theories. 

Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst


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