GoTriangle's response was precisely what Robert Healy and Eric Ghysels didn't want.
For starters, it was too much—a Google Drive link to 31 documents totaling more than a thousand pages, much of it dense, hyper-technical information. More problematic, though, was when it arrived: Thursday, Oct. 8, more than a month after their initial records request but just five days before the end of the public comment period for the proposed Durham-Orange County light-rail line's Draft Environmental Impact Study.
Had those records come earlier, the two academics could have crunched the data and incorporated their findings into their comments, which GoTriangle would then have to answer. Had they come later, after the deadline, they could have filed a public-records complaint with the state. As it was, they were stuck.
"I just got this dump of info from GoTriangle ... at the last minute ... what I feared," Ghysels, the Edward Bernstein Distinguished Professor of Economics at UNC-Chapel Hill, wrote in an email to the INDY.
"Such a mound of material," echoed Healy, professor emeritus of environmental sciences and policy at Duke.
Neither of them is particularly keen on GoTriangle's 17-mile, $1.6 billion light-rail system, which, if all goes to plan, is scheduled to open around 2025. It's not that they oppose public transportation. Quite the contrary. Their beef, they say, is with local leaders' insistence on light rail at the expense of what they consider less sexy but more beneficial and cost-effective solutions such as bus rapid transit.
"Even if one accepts Go Triangle's ridership estimates," Healy testified at a public hearing Oct. 1, "LRT will reduce traffic on 15-501 by less than 5 percent. The project does not serve N.C. Central, nor Durham Tech, nor any of our continuing care communities, nor even downtown Chapel Hill. It serves only a tiny fraction of the large low-income population in northeast and southeast Durham. Not the low-income area of Chapel Hill. Not the large low-income population in rural Orange County."
The first part of that statement is key: if the ridership estimates are correct.
By 2035, GoTriangle projects that it will have more than 23,000 boardings per day. (A few years ago, the first projections pegged that number at about 12,000. GoTriangle made the revision after accounting for existing transit riders who do not pay to use public transportation, either because their employers purchase bus passes or they ride free circulators.)
Healy and Ghysels aren't so sure about that. Charlotte's light rail, they point out, has a daily ridership of about 16,000, and it serves a much larger population.
"Frankly," Healy testified, "I think it quite likely that the ridership estimates are exaggerated by optimistic and hidden assumptions."
If he's right, the rail line won't generate enough revenue at the fare box, and taxpayers may find themselves on the hook. But Healy admits he can't be sure. Until Thursday, he lacked the documents he needs to make such a determination.
For the last two years, Healy and Ghysels have tried to learn more about the assumptions GoTriangle's consultants made about who will use the rail. The transit agency, they say, told them that information would be included in the DEIS. When that study was released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Aug. 28, however, it wasn't there.
On Sept. 2, Healy sent GoTriangle an email requesting, among other things, the "discrete choice models described in Appendix K2 [of the DEIS]" and a spreadsheet "with acronyms and values for input/exogenous variables for [the] 2040 prediction sample." On Sept. 11, GoTriangle acknowledged receipt and promised a response within a week. On Sept. 19, Healy and Ghysels attended a public information hearing, where they say GoTriangle planning director Patrick McDonough told them that the records could not be provided "for civil rights reasons," Healy later recalled in an email to GoTriangle.
(McDonough told the INDY that the National Environmental Policy Act mandates that everyone have equal access to these types of records; McDonough determined that Healy and Ghysels wanted the agency to create a new document, which he feared would run afoul of federal law. In any event, the software that generates those estimates runs upward of a million lines of code, far more than Excel can handle.)
So Healy revised his request. On Sept. 23, he asked for all consultant reports pertaining to ridership estimates. And then he waited for 15 days. Now, he's working his way through the deluge.
For his part, McDonough says GoTriangle feels "reasonably good" about its projections. Some light-rail opponents, he says, misunderstand some of the data. For example, they have claimed that GoTriangle is assuming 40 percent of area residents will be carless by 2035. Not so, he says. Instead, the agency estimates that 40 percent of light-rail riders will be carless, which makes more sense.
More important, the Federal Transit Administration has so far green-lighted the project, which wouldn't have happened if the feds deemed the projections wonky. In fact, the FTA told GoTriangle to have a third party double-check its projections. That report, which the agency received within the last couple of months, "dovetails with what we expected," McDonough says.
While the comment period for the EIS is over, Healy and Ghysels will have plenty of opportunities to make their case should they find anything interesting in the data trove. The light-rail project is still several steps removed from securing federal funding, and after the General Assembly capped state contributions to light rail at $500,000 in this year's budget, the state's $138 million commitment remains in doubt. Before the session adjourned, the House repealed that cap. The Senate will take it up next year—an election year, so who knows what will happen. Without state buy-in, it's unlikely the feds will cut a check.
"What the Senate does will have a great impact on what comes next," McDonough says.
Reach the INDY's Triangulator team at email@example.com.