Fred twitches, Durham sizzles

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, March 21, 2019

I sometimes twitch. Maybe you do, too, so let me explain my twitch. I open the New York Times to this headline: “Durham Dreamed of a Transit Line. Duke University All but Killed It.” Okay, transit line means train, and a daughter of mine went to Duke. Sounds good, let’s read it. The piece begins: “Political leaders in one of the most progressive parts of the South [twitch] have dreamed for two decades about an ambitious plan for a transit line connecting Durham, the home of Duke University, with nearby Chapel Hill. Funds were pledged and renderings were drawn. But in recent days, Duke, which has labored to turn around its reputation as a privileged cloister [twitch], has brought the plan to a shrieking halt. It unilaterally rejected the proposed light-rail route, which would have cut across its property. And the resulting moral outrage [twitch twitch] has felt strong enough to power a train.”  

Moral outrage? Oh my goodness! I read on. One congressman is “appalled,” and a former mayor of Durham compares it to the time Duke “called in police ‘to gas and beat students’ amid civil rights protests in 1969.” A former manager of Duke basketball team says this will harm the school’s reputation among African-Americans like him, who still call Duke “the plantation.” Yes, there is obviously moral outrage. But why?

You know, the story never really explains the moral outrage, other than that the folks in Durham feel that Duke owes them something, because the piece sets up Duke University quite nicely as a cruel, bigoted villain unwilling to offer (I’m quoting the story) “cheap, reliable transportation to the working people who scrape by, cooking and cleaning for the legions of college students in the Research Triangle [twitch twitch twitch].” In the fifteenth paragraph, Times reporter Richard Fausset puts aside his moral outrage long enough to tell us that Duke thinks “construction vibration and electromagnetic interference from the trains might affect sensitive research equipment at Duke’s sprawling medical campus.” Well, okay, now we know, so let’s talk about vibrations and electromagnetic interference and examine the school’s reasoning. But I’m sorry, that never happens—not one syllable—because this is a story about moral outrage, remember?

By now you’ve probably figured out that the twitch is my bullshit detector. I’m asking myself whether this is really a news story or instead a lecture that escaped from the newspaper’s editorial page. But, to my point, I reach the 21st paragraph and am 1,182 words into whatever this is when I read that the cost of the 17.7-mile project is $3 billion, or $169,491,525 a mile. Now I’m twitching uncontrollably. But don’t worry, Mr. Fausset adds, local, state and federal taxpayers will bear the cost. Now we’re into the real moral outrage, and it is my own.

Stuff like this gives public transit a bad name. How can you spend $169,491,525 per mile building a light-rail line through the suburban sprawl of the Research Triangle? I’m guessing there would be a lot of tunneling in Durham and Chapel Hill and a lot of elevated rail line in-between—that, or they plan to lay crossties of gold and rails of silver. This is what you get when someone has a wouldn’t-it-be-nice thought and over the span of 30 years the idea spins totally out of control as every interest group in the region exacts its price of support—you get a wreck. Surely there are better ways to address the transportation problems of the working people of Durham and Chapel Hill and the suburbanites in-between . It’s only a matter of time before Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute and the editorial writers of the Wall Street Journal discover this little gem of civic dreaming run amok and dangle it front of their readers.

Meanwhile, back in Durham, a City Council member says that if Duke won’t surrender land for the project it should be taken by eminent domain, which he calls “the unsexy part of the work of racial equality.” The councilman, a Duke graduate I might add, provides the last words of the story: “Duke created this problem in many ways. They [sic] created the voices and thinkers that are leading this pushback against them.”

If that’s really the case, then Duke should make advanced mathematics mandatory—teach people to count to $3 billion. Twitch.—Fred W. Frailey


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