Orange and Durham counties get a jump on 17-mile light rail line

March 2, 2014 

It’s not quite in the class of Alexander Graham Bell’s first phone call, but in a region that is pioneering technology it was the start of an important connection. On Tuesday, Orange and Durham heard from the Federal Transit Administration that they were authorized to begin developing a new 17-mile light-rail line to connect UNC-Chapel Hill and East Durham.

The notification officially launched the first new rail transit project in the Research Triangle since a previous attempt at rail was called off in 2006.

Triangle Transit’s general manager David King says the green light from the federal government means, “We can now proceed to complete the environmental process, advance our engineering and make final alignment decisions.” Triangle Transit also will work with area universities and towns and cities to talk about land use, including housing development around stations.

Triangle Transit wants to develop rail routes from UNC Hospitals east along N.C. 54, winding around South Square, Duke University and its medical center and downtown Durham. There’s a lot of work to be done before the first train rolls. There is a required environmental impact statement and then engineering work and then construction. If North Carolina and federal funding get the OK, construction of the lines would take four or five years.

New trains and better bus service have been discussed for more than eight years in Wake, Durham and Orange counties. Durham and Orange residents approved a half-cent sales tax and began collecting it last April to help pay for the services.

But a Republican majority of Wake commissioners has resisted putting a half-cent transit tax to a vote. And they’ve seemed lukewarm to rail, period.

Unfortunately, some Republican leaders see the campaign for light rail as a grandiose adventure that will end with huge costs and few passengers. In fact, it’s an attempt to have government show foresight. Though the area’s density might not now support a full-blown light-rail or high-speed bus system, growth is coming, and if the area continues to rely on highways, highways, highways, those roads are going to look like parking lots.

And the prospect of improved mass transit is already reshaping the area. Plans for Raleigh’s $73 million Union Station serving Amtrak trains are moving forward. On Thursday, planners displayed plans for the new station set to open in the once forlorn Warehouse District. It will be built within the old Dillon Supply Viaduct building and later be joined by a new bus station. Architects from the firm Clearscapes have created a design that includes retail and commercial space. The station will be a center for entertainment and business as well as transit.

The leaders of Research Triangle Park also are planning development in the park that will include commercial space and housing accessible by future rail lines.

Wake’s leaders are right to be careful about transit costs, but there’s now a consensus that the region is crowded enough that people soon will need alternative ways to get around. Wake commissioners should let county voters decide whether they want to join Orange and Durham counties in making a connection with the future.

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