One would have to be devoid of a sense of irony to not note the fantastic confluence between the feds’ downgrading of the need for the planned TTA light rail system and the recent Ice Follies. What we saw was a glimpse of a potential version of the future–people stuck in their cars for hours, an entire urban road grid converted to temporary emergency housing as people spent a fat chunk of their day (the record: 14 hours, for a fellow who lives in Wake Forest) trapped in their vehicles.

One tiny error in judgment and suddenly civilization nearly comes unglued. Think it was an isolated event? The future may tell, but then, Raleigh has frequently lagged behind the rest of the nation, in this case in traffic nightmares.

I’ve heard the titter before, the same one where someone from somewhere else, Connecticut perhaps, finds out that an equivalent house here costs a third of the price up dar. It is the same giggle when they find out that our bad traffic days are very like their best. Perspective.

We have had it easy so far. But it is coming, one of the most hated of four letter words: City.

The Triangle is preparing to add another 500,000 residents in the near future. Think things are bad now? Imagine an additional half a million auto trips per day and what that might do.

We cannot build roads fast enough, and the hassles of road construction notwithstanding, there is also the free ride the automobile gets in terms of that, um, stuff that drifts up into the sky and down the drains. You don’t have to be a genius to see that 500,000 more cars is not going to improve our air quality, already among the worst in the nation. Well guess what? I don’t drive anymore and it is my air, too. If one were to factor environmental degradation and, cough, the toll on human health, gas would cost up to 14 bucks a gallon instead of the cushy two bucks a gallon it is now. Freedom isn’t free, especially when it is subsidized by the most expensive military machine ever conceived. The only reason our fuel is so cheap is simple–it’s called extortion/theft. Joe Leuer, a federal employee at the School of the Americas (WHINSEC) at Ft. Benning, told me as much in an unguarded moment, when he said that “if we couldn’t get what we need by negotiation … we’ll just take it.”

Even with that “advantage,” if there is nothing to take, it’s not an advantage, and there is more than ample evidence that we are at the apex of oil. From now on, the era of “cheap” is about over. Note the use of the word “cheap.” We are not going to run out, not yet (50 years at present rate of consumption–a capital “B” thirteen zeros, a B-Billion barrels a day), but the days of two dollars a gallon are about over. Then what? My guess: One will be able to pick up a Hummer (10 mpg) for a case of shotgun shells in a couple of years. Doncha think we, like any smart Boy Scout, oughta be making a plan B?

I know the objections. I agree that passenger rail is, like duh, a money loser (Commodore Vanderbilt said as much a century ago). And it is also true that local foot-dragging has scattered the needed density to Cul-de-Sac Acres and the urban “planning” to the likes of the real estate/N.C. Homebuilders Association juggernaut, but that doesn’t alter the fact that if we don’t suck it up and build the thing, we might really wake up one day up shit creek with a turd for a paddle.

I studied Portland’s MAX light-rail system while I was out there. The same objections were raised about MAX 20 years ago (when I was at the N.C. School of Design and the late Dr. John Reuer conducted a seminar where we came up with what amounted to the same system being considered now–a day late and a dollar short).

Portland forged ahead against the gloom-and-doom bunch, built the thing, and guess what? It works. There are riders who display an affection for MAX normally reserved for family members. All along the routes, entire communities and neighborhoods have sprung up for folks who are more than happy to give up being slaves to the auto in exchange for the clean, silent wonder.

But mass transit is not magic. It is not a panacea. Instead, it is part of a multifaceted strategy to accommodate the public, especially those who can’t (or won’t, like me) drive. There are many who cannot be poked into using mass transit with anything short of a cattle prod, believing that old chestnut that car=freedom (tell that to the Ice Follies survivors, one of whom is a friend who walked from Spring Forest Road to downtown–there’s your real freedom).

Conversely, look at the havoc that occurred after New York City’s recent subway fire. That city requires mass transit, and look at the disaster that has followed.

Now, about the downgrading of the TTA plan by the U.S. Department of Transportation over projected traffic density. Why is anyone still under the delusion that anything that comes out of D.C. these days is based in “facts”? Maybe it is true, but I think there is a strong possibility that this change came about by the fact that Georgie has got us in deep money doo-doo and they really have to shake the trees to finance the various military quagmires (80 billion new dollars) and his nitro-injected supercharging of the deficit to pay for his friends’ tax cuts. They are, after all, liars, and that they would suddenly be expected to tell the truth about something they are knee-jerk opposed to makes about as much sense as an apple falling up. What else would you expect them to say?

And from the right, there is also grousing that mass transit is some sort of plot to enslave Americans. One may be tempted to ask, “How does being a slave to foreign nation states, dead civilians and American soldiers render to us freedom?”

Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton had competing visions of the United States. Jefferson wanted a land of rural self-sufficiency and small farms, while Hamilton foresaw a more urban concept. For Hamilton, the city in its complexity and density was what awaited Americans. As much as we like to cling to the romantic Jeffersonian notion, Hamilton’s vision prevailed, like it or not. One has only to look at the changing demographics to see the truth of that–whole Midwestern states emptying out, the children of farmers dropping the plow handles and fleeing to the cities. It is worth noting that Brazil has overtaken the U.S. in food production. The United States (along with the world) is becoming a more urban place, and part of city life is close contact with one’s fellow citizens, a natural and healthy part of that degraded concept of civic involvement. Part and parcel of “city” is contained in the idea of the agora, the public sphere (the word is “market” in Greek), that the life of the city is in the streets, in people coming together, accidentally, to exchange ideas, to enter the lives of one another. That was always one of the intangibles of mass transit, a quality that cannot be quantified, that lends to the city one of its strengths: cross pollination of ideas and personalities, a factor that took a heavy hit with the G.M.-midwifed destruction of the American streetcar system.

Now that the needle is swinging back to a more rational and balanced view of urban design, Raleigh has a perfect shot at actually becoming more than a stop along the road. We can become an actual place that is a destination itself, a place where people come to, instead of fleeing.

Just build the damned thing and quit dragging. Build it with full knowledge that it will never be profitable, and it might not live up to expectations. Build it so we can haul ourselves out of the old ways of thinking, for the future. It is just money and you can always make money. It would be better to do it and be disappointed than not build it and let an opportunity slip through our fingers, to relegate ourselves to third-tier status. If we can justify a white elephant like the convention center and walk away from a different conception of what this place is poised to become, we may well regret our decision. And then, it may be too late to do anything about it.