Transit officials bring Orange County residents up to speed on light-rail plans

tgrubb@newsobserver.comNovember 15, 2013 

  • Road to funding

    Triangle Transit is seeking a MAP-21 program grant from the Federal Transportation Administration to help pay half the cost of a $1.3 billion light-rail line from UNC Hospitals to Alston Avenue, east of downtown Durham.

    The agency now is drafting an environmental impact statement – the first phase of the process – required under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. The FTA decides what documents and information an applicant must include.

    A typical EIS addresses mobility, environmental benefits, congestion relief, economic development, corridor capacity needs and cost effectiveness per trip. It also includes information about existing local conditions and shows that the local agency has committed funding and a reliable capacity.

    If an EIS is successful, the FTA authorizes the applicant to move to the engineering phase. Once the engineering work is approved, Triangle Transit could begin construction.

    The federal program grants roughly $2 billion annually, usually at 50 percent of the project cost. As of August, there were 29 projects in the pipeline.

    Triangle Transit officials expect the draft EIS to be available by late 2014 and the final report by late 2015.

    Videos and other information from this week’s local meetings will be posted on the project website, bit.ly/b3k21k.

— Orange and Durham residents got a bird’s eye view this week of a future light-rail line between UNC Hospitals and Alston Avenue, east of downtown Durham.

Nearly 150 people attended the last of three Triangle Transit updates Thursday at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill. Two updates earlier this week in Durham attracted 50-plus people each.

The draft plan should be ready by late 2014, with a final plan by late 2015, Triangle Transit officials said.

Last week’s meetings featured overhead and track-level video simulations of the 17-mile route from UNC Hospitals to Alston Avenue near N.C. Central University. Triangle Transit staff gave a brief overview and answered questions as people milled around the room viewing maps and charts.

Chapel Hill resident Mark Roth came to learn more about three potential routes near the home he’s building in Meadowmont. He generally supports alternative transit but still has unanswered questions, including or not whether this is the best use of tax dollars, he said.

“From UNC and Duke’s point of view, this transit makes sense,” he said. “For people who live here, I wondered if there were better alternatives to go to Raleigh or to go to the airport.”

The public meetings are part of an environmental-impact scoping process required of transit projects applying for federal grants. Planners hope to cover half of the estimated $1.3 billion construction cost with federal grants, with the rest coming from state funding and the half-cent sales taxes that has already been approved by Durham and Orange county voters.

The study is looking at land use, planning and economic development possibilities, existing neighborhoods and the potential effects on air, water and soil. Transit officials also are exploring how the line will navigate three particularly sensitive areas – UNC Hospitals, Jordan Lake wetlands and the New Hope Creek corridor in Durham.

The locally preferred route for the more sensitive areas will be chosen as the study comes together, Triangle Transit project manager Greg Northcutt said. UNC and Triangle Transit have been talking about how the stations would fit the campus master plan, transit officials said. They also have been talking with Chapel Hill town staff, they said.

“We’re trying to design the best transit that can meet the needs of the public,” Northcutt said.

Triangle Transit is paying roughly $29 million over two years for consultants to complete the studies. The Federal Transportation Administration must approve the environmental report before considering the funding application.

Triangle Transit General Manager David King has said the agency also is investigating alternative resources given the uncertainties of future federal and state transportation project funding.

The regional rail system was planned to eventually connect through Durham with Cary and Raleigh to the Wake-Johnston county line. Wake County hasn’t endorsed its part of the plan or scheduled a sales-tax referendum to help pay for it. That does not prevent Durham and Orange counties from building their part of the plan.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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