When ideology and public policy collide, the ensuing maelstrom takes on Category 5 proportions. Abortion stands as the classic example, with years of political and religious battles bringing the nation no closer to resolution than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Arguments about property rights, sex education and the death penalty, grounded in theology and encrusted with thousands of years of historical context, are forever recycled in an effort to gain the cumulative high ground.

The comparatively dry arena of public transportation may not appear to fit with those hot buttons, but combatants in North Carolina and elsewhere fight about public transportation–in particular, rail–with the same fervor. In the Triangle, debates over the merits of rail have raged since the matter was first broached–in the 1880s, when Durham laid tracks for mule-drawn streetcars. Today, foes and supporters of the proposed regional rail plan are again going toe-to-toe, asserting that the future of the region hangs in the balance. And though the discussions are framed in practical terms, folks on both sides are fueled by a faith that more resembles religion than rationalism.

For the proponents of rail, an integrated transportation system is part of an overall vision, much more than just a way to move bodies from home to work. In their view, transportation choices affect almost every aspect of community life; the trendy “new urbanist” and “smart growth” philosophies includes public transportation as an integral component.

The other side sees this as “social engineering,” as one News and Observer letter-writer recently charged, the same phrase conservatives use to discredit smoking bans, gun control, affirmative action or anything else governments may undertake that they don’t like. To them, the pursuit of rail in order to guide development and decrease reliance on automobiles is nothing less than an abridgement of individual freedom, the God-given right of all Americans to live and work wherever they want–and get there by car.

Instead of engaging at this fundamental level, however, the wrangle over rail has focused on such issues as economics and personal convenience. Rail costs too much and will never pay for itself, opponents argue, and the system will forever have to be subsidized by the taxpayers. Traveling by rail takes longer than driving and parking is relatively cheap, so commuters will refuse to make the switch from cars to trains.

Those points have their counterpoints. All transportation is heavily subsidized; the tax dollars spent on building and maintaining roads dwarfs expenditures for public transportation. Direct dollar-for-dollar comparisons also miss significant indirect economic benefits from reducing vehicular traffic, such as improved air quality–the costs of pollution-related health care and lost productivity never figure into the cost-benefit analyses. And while it may be more convenient and less expensive for Triangle residents to commute by car today, that can change in short order as the region grows. A recent study of traffic-clogged cities concluded that congestion in Charlotte costs motorists $250 million a year in wasted time and gasoline.

Proof that circumstances change can be found in the dozens of cities that are currently rethinking their transportation priorities: 39 (including the Triangle) are actively pursuing rail, and most of the 30 cities with functioning light rail and subway systems have expansions in progress or on the drawing board. Almost all the projects were initiated in response to serious traffic and pollution problems that the widening and building of highways (the solution of choice for hidebound state transportation departments) failed to solve. In cities not already built out, planners also hoped to limit sprawl and steer development along rail corridors.

In every case, naysayers have attempted to stall the projects or derail them entirely, marshaling their statistics and political allies. Locally, John Odom ran against rail in the Raleigh mayor’s race (more to capture the no-rail vote and distinguish himself from his opponent than out of any intense ideological conviction), even though the city will have little investment in the project. Here, at least, the naysayers have yet to significantly impede progress.

Not so elsewhere. In Houston, for example, voters in 1988 passed a bond referendum that would provide $1 billion for light-rail lines. The city’s transit agency amassed almost $650 million in a rail fund and drew up plans for the system. But in 1992, Bob Lanier ran for mayor on an anti-rail platform, and won. Within months, Lanier began to drain the rail fund, diverting the money to other city projects. At the same time, the city pulled up existing tracks and abandoned rail corridors it had been setting aside.

That was the end of the line for rail, at least for a few years. Despite a massive highway building program, Houston’s traffic and air quality remain among the nation’s worst. Houston has 4 million cars for its 4.7 million residents in the greater metro area; 95 percent of them drive to work, partly for lack of any viable option. In 1997 new mayor Lee Brown and the city council (ironically, with the support of convert Bob Lanier) decided to revisit rail and eventually began construction on a downtown line that will be completed in January. And in November, a bond referendum will again be on the ballot, this time for $3.3 billion.

Though the true believers on either side will never agree, the Houston case does illustrate a few truths about rail. First, zealots can obstruct and delay plans with the help of cooperative elected officials. Second, each policy reversal costs tens or hundreds of millions. Land for transit stops and rights-of-way becomes more difficult and costly to obtain. Sprawl increases the need for connecting buses and park-and-ride lots. Temporary fixes for overtaxed roads must be found. In short, an investment in rail will always be cheaper today than tomorrow.

And third, even when rail plans are put on hold or killed, they always seem to return when it becomes clear that the problems that inspired them in the first place refuse to go away.

Though the air quality in the Triangle has deteriorated over the years and traffic problems on certain arteries give commuters chronic headaches, the area is far from reaching the crisis levels seen elsewhere. This presents the region with a unique opportunity to learn from others’ mistakes and get ahead of the curve. Such foresight led to the creation of the Triangle Transit Authority in 1989, and the agency has been meticulously studying and planning a comprehensive transit future ever since.

That future includes certain assumptions that have been proven true in the marketplace. The notion that business and residential development follows where rail goes, for instance, is beyond dispute. The investment along Portland, Oregon’s light-rail lines has exceeded $1 billion. This summer, Raleigh developer Craig Davis unveiled plans for Triangle Metro Center, a $700-$800 million combination of homes, office buildings and retail space to be located near the TTA rail and bus hub at the corner of N.C. 54 and Miami Boulevard.

Rail’s adversaries make assumptions of their own, but theirs are built on a foundation of pudding. Citing examples of systems that have not met ridership projections (while naturally overlooking those that have exceeded them), they insist that rail will eternally siphon funds from more worthy endeavors, and that citizens in the Triangle will never give up their cars.

Their point resonates especially well in the South, where public transportation has traditionally been associated with the lower classes and minorities. Black residents ride Durham’s buses in disproportionate numbers. For years, Cary resisted having any bus service at all for fear of making the town accessible to riff-raff.

The assumption that we’re permanently incapable of overcoming our preconceptions and prejudices could be taken as an insult, were that the real bone of contention. But the ridership argument, like the economic boondoggle claim, is but a thin veneer masking an inherent belief that rail is simply wrong. Morally wrong.

Healthy public debate about rail has been happening in these parts for a decade. So has the less productive kind, waged by intransigents who will never be moved from their positions without divine intervention. With luck, history will deal with them the way TTA Director of Engineering John Roberson does. When he encounters the fanatics at public forums, Roberson patiently responds to their questions–until he hits that inevitable brick wall. “I guess that you have to reach a point where you politely agree that you disagree,” he says. “And then you move forward.” EndBlock