Policy Study

Past Performance vs. Future Hopes

Will Urban Rail Improve Mobility in North Carolina?

Executive Summary

If policymakers want citizens to approve of their plans, they must first gain the public’s trust. When arguing in favor of a particular transportation project, policymakers may point to projections and project goals. They may also note that many others have taken similar routes. However, perhaps a more effective way to gain the public trust is to point to specific successes that other areas have enjoyed and explain how it is likely that local demographic features will yield similar success. Stakeholders may ask themselves: “Based on the experience of others, what is the best case scenario?” And since the best-case scenario is, by definition, atypical, stakeholders may ask a second question: “Based on our area’s specific characteristics, what can we realistically expect?”

Unfortunately, urban rail has provided little evidence that it can improve mobility, air quality, local economies, or the prospects of the transit-dependent poor. And since the demographic and geographic features and travel patterns of Charlotte, the Triangle and the Triad are particularly unfriendly to rail, these areas are particularly unlikely to enjoy significant rail-related benefits.

Local stakeholders can match their area’s transportation needs to the most effective policies by:

  1. Paring down the list of potential goals;
  2. Focusing on a clear core mission, and
  3. Taking a realistic approach to the benefits and limitations of each policy option.