The $1.6 billion Durham-Orange light-rail plan has run a circuitous route since Triangle governments first explored the idea of regional transit 30 years ago.
You can learn about the proposed 17-mile light-rail line on Tuesday, Sept. 15, in Chapel Hill, and Saturday, Sept. 19, in Durham. Comments about a draft Environmental Impact Statement for the plan will be accepted through Oct. 13, but only at public hearings and by GoTriangle, the regional transit agency leading the project.
The final EIS and public comments will be submitted by February to the Federal Transit Administration, which will decide if the plan is ready for engineering and design work. Once submitted, the plan is not expected to change, officials said.
The Durham-Orange light-rail line would serve 17 stations from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Alston Avenue in Durham. The system could cost about $17.9 million a year to operate and maintain, starting in 2026, officials said, and reach an average of 23,000 weekday trips by 2035.
Federal money is expected to pay up to half of the construction costs. State funding could cover another quarter, and Durham and Orange are paying for the rail service in their counties. Durham’s share amounts to $1.2 billion; Orange could pay roughly $368 million.
But nothing is certain, and 4th District Congressman David Price said it’s important that the federal government remain committed to fully funding New Starts projects, which include local, fixed guideway rail and bus systems.
Price is a ranking Democratic member of the House Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee.
“The Appropriations Committee has consistently been willing to fund Full Funding Grant Agreements in the past,” he said, “but we will be unable to invest in future projects unless Republican leadership lifts the wildly irresponsible budget control caps and puts forward a budget with reasonable funding levels.”
The light rail trains would run on fixed tracks, powered by overhead electrical wires. The trains can travel up to 55 mph, but officials have said the Durham-Orange route could average 26 mph and take about 42 minutes from one end to the other.
Trains would serve the stations every 10 to 20 minutes – six to 12 trains an hour – depending on the time of day. The crossing arms at 25 to 30 at-grade crossings would be lowered for roughly 30 seconds each time a train passes.
The time savings is limited now, officials said, but that could change as the region grows and stations become dense commercial and residential hubs.
About a quarter of the Triangle’s 1.6 million residents and a third of its jobs are in Durham, Chapel Hill and Carrboro, according to a recent regional mobility report. Area traffic volume grew nearly 10 percent between 2005 and 2012, it said.
Patrick McDonough, GoTriangle planning and transit-oriented development manager, noted that UNC and Duke also are decentralizing their health care services, more commuters are driving in for work and school, and the future could hold high-density growth for southwestern Durham.
Light rail would pull riders from crowded roads and bus routes along the N.C. 54 and U.S. 15-501 corridors, officials said, leaving the buses to meet needs in new neighborhoods.
“Light rail success is generally preceded by bus success,” McDonough said, “so (it works in) places where buses are full and you have increasing numbers of problems addressing transportation needs with buses only.”
Numbers stacking up
The Triangle’s transportation future must include multimodal transit options, including an efficient light rail system, Price said.
“Anyone who has sat in traffic on 15-501 or I-40 knows that we face serious challenges when it comes to upgrading our transportation infrastructure,” he said.
The urban population of Durham and Orange counties is smaller – by roughly 236,000 residents – than Charlotte was in 2007 when its light-rail line started, McDonough said. But about 71,300 riders use GoTriangle, Chapel Hill, Durham and Duke buses, compared with roughly 73,000 in Charlotte.
That includes some of the more than 91,000 students attending five colleges and universities in the Charlotte area, GoTriangle officials said, making the comparison “extremely relevant.”
“I think when (federal officials) look at the data, they see a metro area that punches above its weight,” McDonough said.
The plan’s critics have said the area lacks the population density and residents willing to part with their cars to make light rail work. Others, including UNC professor Eric Ghysels and Duke professor emeritus Robert Healy, argue the technology is fast becoming obsolete.
“By the end of a decade, it is very likely that cars (and buses) can travel on U.S. 15-501 and other arterial streets at high speed, either in all lanes or a designated lane, with little space between vehicles,” they wrote in a recent Herald-Sun column (bit.ly/1ESwpjT).
“This will raise average speed and will reduce congestion by doubling or trebling the number of vehicles that can be accommodated by the road’s current width,” they said. “It would be ironic – but by no means impossible – to see vehicles moving along 15-501 more rapidly than the LRT.”
Years in development
Although some residents may have only learned about the light rail project in the last year, multiple incarnations have been proposed since 1990.
David Bonk, Chapel Hill’s long-range and transportation planning manager, said he encouraged Durham, Chapel Hill and Carrboro leaders in 1985 to consider light rail as a long-range option. He then chaired a state-sponsored study looking at rail lines, including a Durham-Chapel Hill light-rail route.
“A lot of that basic work then was done in that time period,” Bonk said. “And then we, (the Metropolitan Planning Organization), included in each of the plans that we adopted every three years, the light-rail corridor.”
The first plan, in 1994, included a 47-mile light-rail system linking Chapel Hill, Durham, Cary, Raleigh and North Raleigh; self-propelled diesel rail cars on tracks between Chapel Hill, Cary, Durham and North Raleigh; and a mix of busways and high-occupancy-vehicle highway lanes for $100 million.
But that plan and others began to run into problems, from freight rail operators unwilling to share track space and growing construction costs to state and federal funding cuts and questions about regional ridership numbers. Plans that initially focused on the U.S. 15-501 corridor were dropped in the late 1990s when local leaders started seeing growth along N.C. 54 and, by 2002, at the Streets at Southpoint.
While GoTriangle – formerly Triangle Transit Authority – got the green light in 2003 to plan a 35-mile, $724 million commuter rail line linking Raleigh, Research Triangle Park and Durham, lingering questions eventually cut off funding. TTA dropped its bid in 2006.
Regional transit talks resurfaced the next year, bringing new bus and rail plans. But the recession hit, and local leaders went back to the drawing board again to design a system with more bus services, a Chapel Hill-Durham light-rail line and the Durham leg of a rush-hour commuter train to Garner.
Durham voters approved a half-cent sales tax to fund the plan in 2011; Orange voters backed the tax in 2012. Wake County is still thinking about it.
A regional transit brainstorming session might bring a different solution today, Bonk said, but the current plan has been tested for 20 years and balances competing interests. He also sees it as “an opportunity to create a land-use pattern that is highly compatiable with the light rail corridor.”
“We’ve continually updated data we used to analyze the impacts of the corridor, so it’s not as if we’ve frozen time in 1995 and not recognized that things have changed,” he said.
The plan is still changing, including the UNC Hospitals station, which was moved to behind the Dogwood Parking Deck to avoid busy Manning Drive. That site still allows a future spur up Columbia Street to the Carolina North campus, officials said.
The Alston Avenue station in Durham also was moved due to concerns and physical constraints, officials said, and downtown crossings were redesigned at-grade to meet future North Carolina Railroad freight and intercity passenger rail needs and safely separate light rail from freight trains.
GoTriangle also chose preferred routes across Little Creek – south of N.C. 54 and north of the Downing Creek neighborhood – and New Hope Creek – hugging U.S. 15-501 – that address environmental concerns, they said.
A long-planned route through Meadowmont was dropped after residents who didn’t want it petitioned the Chapel Hill Town Council for help. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also asked GoTriangle to avoid its land north of N.C. 54 and east of Meadowmont.
Downing Creek residents have since mounted a strong opposition, saying four at-grade crossings near the entrance to their neighborhood could put drivers, cyclists and pedestrians trying to navigate those crossings at risk.
N.C. Department of Transportation officials plan to address those issues by monitoring traffic at the crossings with closed-circuit TV cameras and gate sensors. The state also could add a merge lane for traffic leaving Littlejohn Road for N.C. 54 East.
Storage and maintenance
Another contentious decision is where to build a Rail Operations and Maintenance Facility.
Three sites – Alston Avenue, Patterson Place and Leigh Village – were dropped. A site on Cornwallis Road has raised concerns about how trains would navigate turns and affect the nearby Judea Reform Congregation and Lerner Jewish Community Day School.
The preferred site – 20 acres between Farrington Road and Interstate 40 – will affect six homes directly and dozens more indirectly. It would require a rezoning and land-use permit hearing.
Frustrated neighbors have questioned why GoTriangle would build a maintenance facility within walking distance of homes and an elementary school. They worry that potentially toxic chemicals used to clean the trains could pollute a stream on the site.
The facility also could be a magnet for more growth, development and traffic, Baker’s Mill resident Morris Clarke said.
“It’s not the right place in that it changes the (character) of the community, and there’s no assurance that it won’t proliferate into something that’s even worse,” he said. “If you take this area for commercialization and industry, then someone else is going to say, hey, ‘Location, location, location.’”
The reality, officials said, is that site will be developed eventually. The city of Durham has designated it for future office and commercial projects, they said, and it also wouldn’t be the first rail facility near homes. There are 11 similar facilities around the country, including in Denver and Utah, they said.
You have until Oct. 13 to tell transit officials what you think about the Durham-Orange light-rail line. A draft Environmental Impact Statement is available at local libraries and at ourtransitfuture.com/deis.
Comments can be submitted by mail to D-O LRT Project – DEIS, c/o GoTriangle, P.O. Box 530, Morrisville, NC 27560; email to email@example.com; or on the project website at ourtransitfuture.com/comment.
Information meetings will be held from 4-7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 15, at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill, and 2-5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 19, at the Durham Station Transportation Center, 515 W. Pettigrew St. in Durham.
The public hearings are from 4-7 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Friday Center, and 4-7 p.m. Oct. 1 in the Durham County Commissioners chamber, 200 E. Main St.