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Traveling back

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How soon we forget. Now that the federal government has forced the Triangle Transit Authority to pull the plug on its request for continued funding to complete the long-planned commuter rail line, we're looking for private development to pay for much of it.

But it hasn't been that long since Raleigh and Durham took over their own transit systems from private companies because--they lost money. And once again, because of the Bush administration's misguided belief that private industry can do anything better than government, we're going to watch an essential public service suffer.

But first, a little history. The nation's transit systems were virtually all private for their first century or more--from horse-drawn carts in the mid-1800s to cable cars to electric trolleys and later, electric and gasoline buses. Some systems, like Boston's, were built by developers to lure the burgeoning middle class into sparkling new communities. Some were built by private companies, like the New York City subways--which explains why it's so hard to get from one line to another. And many were eventually taken over by local electric utilities as a way to increase profits.

But a funny thing happened. Transit started costing more money to operate than it could bring in. And those developers, private companies and electric utilities announced they wanted to get out of the transit business. Since they were unprofitable, no one wanted to buy them. So, being a vital service that cities couldn't live without, local governments had to take them over.

In Raleigh, ownership went from a private street railway line that built the system in the 1880s to a string of power companies that ran it until around 1950, when the city hired private companies to run it. The city created the current Capital Area Transit system in 1975.

Rail and electric companies ran Durham's system until 1991, when Duke Power paid the city $10.7 million to take it off their hands.

What's the point? It's intriguing to think that transit may once again be tied to the development it serves. But it's foolish to think that development, by itself, will pay for the transit--a public service as important to the community as streetlights, garbage pickup and, yes, roads. We don't blink an eye at spending $270 million to widen I-85 for eight miles through Durham, or $54 million for an I-40 widening--and another $15 million to fix mistakes made during construction. But when it comes to asking the feds to come up with another $400 million or so to complete the backbone for a regional rail system, the answer is sorry, we're getting out of the business of subsidizing big transportation projects.

The hell they are. They just don't do it for the solution that makes the most sense as oil production peaks and gasoline climbs toward $4 a gallon and beyond.

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