Panel approves light-rail plan

Link: Durham and Chapel Hill

jwise@newsobserver.comFebruary 9, 2012 

— After some last-minute confusion, plans for a light-rail line between Chapel Hill and Durham got unanimous approval Wednesday from a bi-county transportation committee.

The vote for a "Locally Preferred Alternative" route keeps the project on schedule to apply for a federal grant this year. It also moves the project along to another round of public hearings, on environmental effects, this spring.

The approved route runs from UNC Hospitals to downtown Durham, and includes both alternatives for a segment between the Friday Center on N.C. 54 and a proposed development site on Farrington Road in Durham.

C1, favored by the planners: Through the Meadowmont community and across a pristine section of the Little Creek bottomlands, a "Significant Natural Heritage Area."

C2, favored by most residents who have expressed opinions: Within the existing N.C. 54 corridor to the proposed Hillmont subdivision, then north along George King Road.

Transit planners say transit-oriented Meadowmont would produce high ridership, while Hillmont remains to be designed and might turn out less transit-friendly. C1 requires fewer land acquisitions.

C2 supporters say the Meadowmont route splits an existing neighborhood, compromises an unspoiled natural area and that Triangle Transit's own analysis shows C2 to be the cheaper route: $182 million versus $212 million for C1.

In recent weeks, however, some Orange County officials had suggested a third route, avoiding N.C. 54 altogether and running the track through the U.S. 15-501 corridor.

The Orange commissioners discussed route options until late Tuesday night before agreeing to support sending both C1 and C2 forward for environmental research.

However, when the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization's Transportation Advisory Committee met Wednesday morning, neither Orange County representative Alice Gordon nor alternate Bernadette Pelissier were sure just what they and their fellow commissioners had decided.

"We were talking about this probably until 11 o'clock at night," Gordon said. "Forgive us."

After some telephone calls for clarification, Gordon said that Orange County was in favor of advancing C2 alone, because of its anticipated lesser effects on the environment.

The Chapel Hill Town Council is also on record favoring C2 but supports leaving both alternates open for a later decision.

Patrick McDonough, lead planner with Triangle Transit, said leaving both alternatives under study might avoid some later difficulties, particularly in negotiations to cross Army Corps of Engineers property.

Gordon said the Orange commissioners are still interested in the U.S. 15-501 routing but did not want it incorporated in the plans voted on Wednesday.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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