How much is $3.3 Billion?

I’ve been following the debate about the current Durham Orange light rail project.  Here’s what’s clear to me:

  1. A lot of people like the idea of light rail
  2. A lot of people are against the current light rail project
  3. A small number of people don’t like light rail at any price
  4. A similarly small number of people like light rail no matter what the price
  5. A majority of people liked light rail in 2012 when the price tag was $2.4 billion
  6. Some smaller number of people currently like light rail at the current price of $3.3 billion

How much is too much to pay for light rail in our community?  That seems like the question before us all now.  Nine current or former mayors (with at least one notable exception) signed a letter to enthusiastically support the current plan.  One thing that the mayors’ letter doesn’t mention is anything about price.  I assume they either like it at any price or their maximum price that that they’d be willing to pay is somewhere north of the current $3.3 billion.

So the question is: what is your maximum price you think the community should be willing to pay for light rail?

Everyone on both sides of this debate seems pretty confident in their opinions so I’m sure they’ve thought this through thoroughly.  Personally, I have no idea how much $3.3 billion is, so I did some quick math to get a sense of what you could buy with that amount of money.

So in your mind compare the capacity of 26,000 trips at peak light rail capacity with the following things.  Of course I’m not suggesting we do any of these things, but here’s what we could do with $3.3 billion:

  • Buy 132,000 Toyota Priuses
  • Buy a Toyota Prius every year for 5,700 people forever
  • Buy a Toyota Prius every 5 years for at least 28,500 people
  • Give $1,000 to 132,000 people every year forever
  • Give $10,000 to 13,200 people every year forever
  • Give $50,000 to 2,640 people every year forever
  • Give 25,000 Uber rides at $20 every weekday of the year forever
  • Give $6,290 to each Carrboro citizen every year forever
  • Give $524 to each Durham citizen every year forever
  • Give every citizen of Durham, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro a one-time payment of $9,932

If you wait until the 2029 light rail opening date these numbers go up significantly through compounding interest.

Of course you can quibble about the exact numbers, but these are in the ball park.

  1. Any rail system would require riders to travel when the rail car is scheduled. All riders would need to get to the pickup stations somehow and then somehow get to to their final destinations after the drops them off. I attempted to use the rail system between Ft. Lauderdale and Miami. I waited and waited for rail cars to arrive on their schedule and then had to walk a mile when dropped off nearest to where I wanted to go. Same thing on the return ride. All your ways to spend $3.3B give users total freedom to travel as they please when they please.

    1. Total freedom to sit in traffic. You can’t get by with more cars on existing infrastructure or we’ll end up just like Austin, TX. I’m not saying $3.3 billion is an acceptable number, but if you’re going poo poo light rail you have to honestly consider the total cost of not doing it.

      1. If we increased bus service and made it to be as efficient as getting in a car I think people would take the bus. I prefer my bike and for any destination between chapel hill and durham I am not much slower than if I drive. I realize not everyone wants to do that. How about jet packs? (Just kidding)

      2. That’s true, Ryan. That was my intent – clarify the project cost. Perhaps the benefits exceed the cost?

        So it sounds like you are not convinced about this project at the current price since you are “not saying $3.3 billion is an acceptable number.”

        1. I admit to being someone who just likes public transit and doesn’t think much about the cost. Part of that is because I think there is usually more help at the federal and state level. I completely agree that it is hard to understand what it means for our metro area to shoulder most of that $3.3 billion. Numbers like that get thrown around a lot at the federal level and I don’t even notice it. Ultimately I think it will be beneficial but that assessment is based on a lot of intangibles. The introduction of transit systems like this tend to spur a more organized and efficient form of development around them…basically less sprawl, less time and productivity wasted, etc. Less cars on the road means less fatalities, etc., you get the idea. There are a lot of soft benefits to public transit but I think it is hard to determine the exchange rate with Priuses (Prii?).

          I’m relying on memory here, but I believe Seattle was approached by the federal government back in the 1970’s to put in a heavy rail subway system and the city balked because the local share of the cost seemed too high. I believe the feds then approached Atlanta and now they have MARTA. I can tell you that most people in Seattle regret that decision daily as they sit on I-5 trying to get around downtown at literally any time of day. Obviously not an apples-to-apples comparison between Seattle and Durham/Orange counties, but maybe we should be factoring future generations into our calculation. It is definitely a hard pill to swallow in the short-term, but I do believe the ROI is out there somewhere.

          1. Other than the political expediency to help sell a project, I am not clear on why the source of the money (local, state, or federal) is important. Either the benefits outweigh the costs or they don’t. It seems to me that keeping 100% of the costs local is more likely to get us to a good decision based on the cost / benefit. Sticking the costs to unnamed people far way who don’t have a say and won’t get any of the benefits doesn’t seem right either.

            In terms of the soft benefits, do you have evidence that these are indeed achieved, or are you relying on your intuition? Here is evidence I found that at least some of those you mentioned are not achieved with light rail (first 2 results from Google search “do light rail systems reduce traffic?”:

  2. One of the issues is the price does not include parking areas at transit locations. There is also no allowance in this figure for cost overruns that are typically 40 to 50% of total project cost. All the transit stops in Orange County are on property owned by UNC, which does not pay any taxes to Orange County, as such the economic development is limited. Some developers like Roger Perry see this as a good thing for their business but it is limited. The rail line will also have to cut through wetlands that will result in higher permitting costs and engineering costs.

    Here is another question, could we build a bike super highway that gets us around the region in a safe and comfortable manner for less money? I realize the practicality of going to the airport on a bike is limited but is it efficient and better for us to use bikes to reach other destinations?

    1. I just left Amsterdam, which has the most incredible bike culture and bike lane setup I’ve ever seen. I think the triangle is an area that could potentially embrace a much more bike-centric infrastructure, but it would take time for people to really build it into their lives. Also probably not for the airport, although I wouldn’t put it past the Dutch to have figured out a bike luggage rack of some kind.

      I think finding some way to become less car reliant is absolutely necessary, so I don’t think more cars, even more energy efficient cars, are the way to go. But I don’t know if light rail is, either. My question is, what makes light rail/metro/tram systems work so incredibly well in big cities, and does the triangle have those correct factors or not?

  3. Another cost not mentioned is ongoing operating costs. Few if any of these light rail systems cover their operating costs with the revenue they bring in. Usually the losses are in the tens of millions of dollars per year.

  4. One can build 24,000 miles of bike lanes with that $3.3 billion, at least according to bike-lane advocates. (

    However, to be fair in your comparisons, it seems to me you need to figure out the present value of the $3.3 billion project, rather than just summing up the annual expenditures over 12 years and imagining writing one check for that amount.

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