Road Worrier

Road Worrier: As Wake ponders, Durham and Orange work toward light rail

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comNovember 25, 2013 

— As Wake County starts a new round of agonizing over the merits of trains and buses, Durham and Orange county leaders are pushing ahead with plans for a light rail transit line that would link their major job centers.

An eye-opening online “flyover” video simulates the 17-mile path proposed for electric-powered light rail trains that would run from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke University and downtown Durham, ending at Alston Avenue near N.C. Central University.

The Orange and Durham transit plans start with expanded bus service before the light rail line is built, and there’s a separate commuter train project that would link Duke and Durham to Research Triangle Park, Cary, Raleigh and Garner. Voters in both counties have approved the plans and are taxing themselves a half cent on every dollar of sales to help pay for the improvements.

Wake commissioners dusted off their county’s 2-year-old draft transit plan this month. It calls for more buses and the Durham-to-Garner rush-hour trains, and eventually light rail in Cary and Raleigh. Skeptical commissioners and business leaders now are considering whether to scale back rail plans in favor of more investment in buses.

Ellen Reckhow, a longtime Durham County commissioner and Triangle Transit trustee, said she hopes they’ll take the long view. She believes rail transit will help the Triangle shape and serve its relentless growth – 1 million new residents expected in the next 25 years.

“I don't have a problem with vetting other alternatives and to some degree second-guessing the plan, because we are looking at making major investments,” Reckhow said. “It’s better to do a thorough due diligence at the front end, and make sure whether folks are totally comfortable with the original plan or want to go a new route.

“I just hope that whatever new route is picked takes into account not necessarily where we are today, but where we will be 15 or 20 years from now,” Reckhow said.

Looking at the Durham-Orange transit line on a map, it isn’t so easy to imagine what it would be like to ride the train. But you start to get an idea if you check out the new 13-minute video, online at youtu.be/PqijCS_B2U8.

The tracks appear as bright blue lines running behind schools and shopping centers, between highways and golf courses, through woods and fields and over Interstate 40. In Durham, the trains travel down the center of University Drive and later down Erwin Road, before swooping over the Durham Freeway to finish on new tracks in the N.C. Railroad corridor, alongside heavier freight and Amtrak trains.

Along the way there are alternatives still to be evaluated: Whether to run through Chapel Hill’s Meadowmont or around it, and how to navigate the New Hope Creek watershed and the South Square area. The map shows 17 stations on the line, including seven on the Chapel Hill side of I-40 and seven urban stops between LaSalle Street and Alston in Durham.

As the Wake commissioners begin their reappraisal of the bus-and-train plan, they are expected to consider a critique by the Regional Transportation Alliance, a business group that lobbies for transportation improvements. The group worries that trains are too expensive, and it is pushing bus rapid transit – rubber-tire bus service enhanced with some of the trappings of trains.

Planners say bus rapid transit can outrun regular cars and buses – but only if it is built with its own reserved guideway, like a train with its tracks.

“Some of the people promoting bus rapid transit are just talking about putting buses on the highway,” said George Cianciolo, recently elected to the Chapel Hill Town Council. “That is not going to solve our traffic congestion issues. They think somehow that bus rapid transit is a quick, inexpensive fix, and it’s not.”

Cianciolo co-chaired a three-county citizen advisory commission that helped develop regional transit plans. The group and planners concluded that the proposed rail lines would be more dependable than bus rapid transit, would carry more riders at lower operating cost, and would do more to stimulate a dense mix of urban development around transit stations.

Cianciolo still likes light rail, but he also has hopes for a proposed bus rapid transit line that would run north from downtown Chapel Hill on N.C. 86.

David King, Triangle Transit’s general manager, figures that a full-fledged bus rapid transit replacement would reduce the capital cost of the Durham-Orange light rail line by about 30 percent. Travel times would be longer than the expected 35-minute trip for trains, and bus rapid transit would probably attract fewer than the 20,000 people expected to ride the trains each day by 2035, he said.

A draft environmental plan is expected in late 2014, with 2026 the earliest possible date for starting light rail service.

Durham and Orange will consider bus rapid transit or other options if the rail project runs into financial obstacles, King said – a real possibility as federal funding has waned in recent years. But for now, he’s committed to the light rail plan.

“I think we owe it to the folks that voted for it,” King said. “And to doing the right thing for the long term.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or newsobserver.com/roadworrierblog Twitter: @Road_Worrier

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