Our community is in a debate over the escalating costs of the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit and whether this project makes sense for Orange County. The recent column by Molly DeMarco confuses the debate with dated information and emotional hyperbole about those who are asking rational and important questions.
For the record, the Orange County section of the light-rail line serves a tiny three-mile segment along N.C. 54 toward the UNC campus. The planned route goes from UNC to N.C. Central University, doesn’t serve Chapel Hill or Carrboro, or address any of the growing congestion on Interstate 40. It might be a worthy project for Durham and UNC, but for Orange County citizens, there's very little smart growth or economic development possible.
Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit is at least 12 years away, and the costs are now so high, there’s no money left from the voter-approved transit taxes to provide public transportation to growth areas in Orange County or to transit-dependent communities that could benefit the most for many decades. Working families, seniors, millennials and others in Orange County will not be able to live with fewer cars – even after we’ve spent over $3 billion on light rail.
The most recent plan to borrow nearly a billion dollars adds a new set of questions about financial risk. Since loan payments would tie up voter-approved transit sales taxes until 2062, there are important new questions about obsolescence and therefore sustainability. As public transportation undergoes a transformation using bus rapid transit systems, ridesharing and autonomous vehicles, Orange County will be stuck with payments for a 20th century fixed- rail corridor between Durham and UNC well into the 21st century.
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Contrary to Ms. DeMarco’s assertions, here are the facts:
▪ Voters approved a half-cent increase to their sales tax for public transportation. Voters never weighed in on specific modes, and there has never been a plan to use property taxes to pay for it.
▪ GoTriangle compared Durham-Orange Light Rail to bus rapid transit in 2011. Since then much has changed. Based on GoTriangle’s latest reports, fixed guideway BRT would be faster than light rail, provide the same development opportunities, be more flexible, be completed sooner and cost a lot less. Chapel Hill is planning its own fixed guideway BRT, which is also a lot cheaper than Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit and will be in place years earlier.
▪ After due diligence, Wake County abandoned GoTriangle’s light-rail plan and within two years has a new plan to service their entire county, including the densest corridors connecting Raleigh, RTP and Durham. Despite a late start, Wake’s plan will be be completed before Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit and is moving quickly through the process of securing federal funds.
▪ GoTriangle has created an untenable situation for Orange County leaders and citizens with repeated failures to provide accurate and timely information on funding, costs and requirements. Now our officials are now being rushed to make a decision that deserves careful and critical consideration.
These facts don’t consider the political uncertainty facing funding at the state and federal level. All signs suggest that the millions we are already spending is at Orange County’s taxpayer risk and at the expense of significantly improving regional transportation now.
Orange County faces the most important infrastructure decision we have ever undertaken. There are lots of opinions about the project, but now we need to recognize the facts. We cannot afford to allow this debate to degrade into uninformed emotional rhetoric targeted at citizens who are legitimately concerned about the future of public transportation in Orange County. We all support transit and want a system that works for a many as possible.
Tony Blake is a member of the Orange County Planning Board; this column represents his own opinion.