Transit plans focus on buses now, trains later

Local transit plans in works

Staff WriterJune 13, 2011 

  • The Durham County Commissioners will hold a public hearing tonight on a proposed half-cent sales tax to help pay for bus and rail transit improvements. The meeting, at 200 E. Main St., starts at 7 p.m. The commissioners are expected to decide June 27 whether to schedule a November referendum on the transit tax.

    Orange and Wake county commissioners have decided against scheduling a transit tax referendum this year.

    Public meetings this week

    Learn about plans for bus and rail transit in Orange and Durham counties, and how to pay for it, at three public information sessions this week.

    Tuesday, 4 to 7 p.m., Town Hall, 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Chapel Hill.

    Wednesday, 3 to 6 p.m., North Regional Library, 221 Milton Road, Durham.

    Thursday, 4 to 7 p.m., Orange County Library, 137 W. Margaret Lane, Hillsborough.

    Read the Orange and Durham plans at www.dchcmpo.org and take an online survey at www.surveymonkey.com/s/Transit-Plan.

    Durham-Orange rail plans

    Commuter rail, possibly starting in 2018. Rush-hour trains that share existing tracks with Amtrak and freight. A 37-mile line from West Durham to East Garner with 12 stops in Durham, Research Triangle Park, Morrisville, Cary, Raleigh and Garner. Capital cost: $645 million.

    Light rail, possibly starting in 2025. Electric trains on new tracks, either separate or in streets alongside cars and trucks. A 17-mile line from UNC Hospitals to East Durham. Capital cost: $1.4 billion.

    What about Wake County?

    Wake County plans won't be finished for several months. They are likely to include the Durham-to-Garner commuter train, and a light-rail line from West Cary through downtown Raleigh to North Raleigh at Triangle Town Center.

    Wake's plan will include beefed-up bus service during the first three years, including new routes to outlying towns, more frequent runs during peak hours, and longer evening and weekend hours.

The old Triangle plan for a regional transit network was all about sleek trains and federal money. It flopped.

The new transit plan starts with a more down-to-earth emphasis: local money first, and more buses right away.

Orange and Durham county officials this month are weighing new financial plans for beefing up their bus routes and building new rail transit lines across the Triangle over the next 25 years.

Public information sessions are planned this week. The Durham commissioners will receive residents' comments at a hearing tonight.

Bus riders in the two counties would get a boost of nearly 25 percent - an added 94,000 hours of local and regional bus service each year - within three years after voters approved a proposed half-cent sales tax for public transit, according to the Orange and Durham plans.

"It's important, when you pass the sales tax message to the public, that you've got something concrete to show them," said Bernadette Pelissier, chairman of the Orange County commissioners. "If you're building up the bus service, they get something for those dollars right away."

Durham commissioners this month will consider putting a transit sales tax referendum on the November ballot. The Orange and Wake commissioners have decided they won't think about scheduling a referendum before next spring.

Wake County's bus and rail investment plan won't be out until October or November. It is expected to reflect the same political and practical philosophy that shaped the Durham and Orange plans.

New express bus routes, more frequent local runs, and longer night and weekend hours top the list of bus improvements proposed for the two western Triangle counties. New lines would reach Rougemont in northern Durham County and Mebane in western Orange.

Park-and-ride lots and satellite transit hubs would help rural and suburban commuters catch the bus to work centers such as the Duke and Veterans Affairs hospitals in West Durham. And the busiest 250 bus stops across two counties would get major make overs, sharing $2.5 million in amenities.

The trains come much later.

Trains in the future

Trains would form the transit backbone for a region expected to add nearly 1 million residents by 2035. Some bus routes would be realigned to serve rail stops.

Rush-hour commuter trains from Duke to East Garner could start rolling by 2018. A light-rail line between UNC-Chapel Hill and East Durham might get moving as soon as 2025, if everything worked out.

The capital costs for the proposed Orange and Durham county improvements are pegged at $2.1 billion for rail and $88 million for buses over the next 25 years.

The bus plans count on federal money for most of the cost of new buses, and on state and federal money for most of the rail construction. Annual revenues from the proposed half-cent sales tax are projected at $17.3 million in Durham County and $5.1 million in Orange County.

Triangle Transit's first proposal for a regional rail network died in 2006 because federal officials concluded that the trains would not serve enough riders to justify the expense, and because local political and financial support was weak.

Several Orange County commissioners worried at a meeting last week about committing local tax dollars for transit before the matching state and federal funds are guaranteed. Transit advocates have argued in the opposite direction, that Triangle counties won't get those federal dollars unless they spend local money first.

Some local officials draw encouragement from Charlotte's success with the transit sales tax, which was endorsed by voters in 1998 and 2007. Most of the proceeds were poured into bus improvements before Charlotte's first light-rail line opened in 2007.

"Charlotte expanded bus service quickly and found that it built ridership and built more support," said Ellen Reckhow, a Durham County commissioner. "So we're following a winning formula."

Key to getting support

That bus-now, train-later formula could be important for rail boosters who will need the support of bus riders in a referendum - if one is ever scheduled - on the half-cent transit sales tax.

James Chavis, 57, a DATA bus rider, showed up for a public information session on Durham transit plans last week at the Holton Career and Resource Center on North Driver Street in East Durham.

He complained to Triangle Transit and Durham city officials about gaps in bus service, old grievances and mistrust among low-income residents who depend on public transportation. Don't think about building a new rail network until the old bus system is running much better, he said.

"You're going to try to get us to invest in a rail system?" Chavis asked. "You'd better try to make the bus system work, and show people that it will work - and then bring in the other one. We don't want two things not working."

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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