Faced with choice between a light rail system serving north Mecklenburg or none, you’d probably climb aboard, right? And if I asked you for a donation to help build it? I’m guessing your response would be somewhere between “let me get back to you” and “bless your heart.”

But rail lines cost money-boxcars full of money. In fact, the latest estimates put the Red Line project from Charlotte to Mooresville at around $350 million. That number isn’t likely to decrease given the number of towns, consultants and governmental agencies involved. I’m betting the final tally will approach Joint Strike Fighter-like escalation.

Now in these days of steroidal deficits, can we justify tacking on another $350 mil? Well, there’s a glossy report you paid for that says if we wager millions of your tax dollars building the Red Line, other folks are going to construct $6 billion worth of stuff alongside it. It must be a really, really nice train.

Great return, right? Except, uh, three short years ago a developer was willing to pony up $70 million for roads for the privilege of plowing another half a billion into Cornelius. Anybody remember Augustalee? Apparently the notion that developers should help alleviate the public burdens they cause gets derailed when it comes to the train.

Okay, building the Red Line will entice developers to develop. Any other benefits? Will it actually carry people? Of course, but so few not even the federal government wants to ante up. That’s right- ridership estimates are so low the project doesn’t qualify for federal funding. (You’d think that would’ve lowered a crossing gate somewhere.) If they don’t take the train, how are people going to get to $6 billion worth of buildings? Most likely they’ll drive – on Interstate 77.

So let’s compare the Red Line to adding a lane on I-77 up to Catawba Avenue. First, how much would third lane cost? Rough estimates put the number around $30-50 million. That’s dropping a zero off the Red Line price tag. Second, will a third lane carry traffic? Duh. I cram into one of two lanes with 80,000-plus of my closest friends every day. You’ve probably seen me- I’m the one with the scowl on my face.

As an ace-in-the-hole, rail proponents like to play the environmental card. Trains are supposed to be cleaner, right? No argument here. A train requires about a third the fuel a truck does to move the same amount of cargo. Problem is, “cargo” in this case would be people. Remember the ridership estimates? The folks from the Peninsula aren’t going to leave their beemers at the Park and Ride all day. But if those beemers (and lesser vehicles) were moving in three lanes instead of idling in two, we’d save around three million gallons of gas and keep 30,000 tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere every year. (If you don’t believe me I’ll send you the spreadsheet.)

Three million gallons of gas equates to $10 million a year in our pockets. Instead of going up in a cloud of ozone, we could be spending that cash on local businesses. That’s like finding money. How’s that for a return on investment?

To be fair, the train and the lane don’t compete directly for funding. But they do compete for our elected officials’ attention, and right now the train is pretty far down the track: Charlotte, Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville have donated some of your tax dollars to stoke the coals. They hold meetings. They’ve brought in consultants. They’ve created a task force. Heck, they even have a website.

And I-77? I scoured the towns’ websites. If any town is advocating a third lane, they’ve buried the memo so deep I don’t think Wikileaks could find it.

So why do you think our elected officials remain fixated on light rail? Probably because nobody was ever remembered for laying down asphalt, but every civic leader likes to point to a shiny new train. All aboard!

– Kurt Naas

Naas serves on the Cornelius Transportation Advisory Board. He’s forming a grass roots organization to widen I-77 through the Lake Norman area. You can e-mail him at wideni77@hotmail.com.