Opponents of the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project know the large majority of Chapel Hill and Carrboro residents want light rail from UNC to Duke and downtown Durham. After all, in 2012, Orange County voters chose to raise their own taxes to pay for a transit plan with light rail as the centerpiece. Recently, Public Policy Polling confirmed that 69 percent of Chapel Hill voters continue to support the project.
To kill the project, opponents know they can’t appear to be anti-transit. Instead, they must convince you there are better, cheaper options. In their latest campaign, opponents revive their old claim that bus rapid transit (BRT), which uses buses on dedicated roadways instead of trains on light rail tracks, is inherently better and dramatically cheaper. But, they say, stubborn train lovers at GoTriangle refuse to examine a bus alternative.
Here are five facts light rail opponents hope you won’t find out:
1) GoTriangle already weighed light rail and BRT options for the Durham-Orange corridor. The Federal Transit Administration did, too. In fact, doing so was a requirement to get the FTA to support the project. (There’s a 1,042-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the subject, if you’re up for some light reading.) The FTA, after its own review, agreed that light rail is a better choice than bus to cost-effectively connect people to three major universities, Duke Medical and UNC Healthcare jobs, special events at the Smith Center and DPAC, and all the employment and cultural opportunities in downtown Durham.
2) Real BRT would cost more to run in the long term, and still cost a lot to build. Critics claim we could build a BRT system in the Durham-Orange corridor for as little as 10 percent of the cost of light-rail transit. The only way BRT can actually be that cheap is if you take away two road lanes from cars for the bus to use. That’s clearly not an option along N.C. 54 or U.S. 15-501 because the N.C. Department of Transportation won’t permit it. The only way to get dedicated lanes is from widening the road. Building a dedicated roadway for BRT would cost 70 percent of the cost of building light rail tracks, and would be a losing investment over time. When people tell you BRT can be built for a fraction of light rail costs, they are telling you that they are comfortable drastically lowering the quality of transit service for everyone using it by making it slower and less reliable. Low-cost BRT projects are mostly stuck in mixed traffic with cars, and are not rapid transit in any way. Once built, buses cost more to operate and carry fewer passengers than light rail. For the money opponents are willing to spend, we wouldn’t get BRT, we’d only get a bus.
3) GoTriangle has nothing against BRT. In fact, they want to build it in Raleigh. Critics claim GoTriangle wants to build light rail because they’re transit nerds who love trains. They are indeed transit nerds; they know a lot about moving people efficiently from place to place. If GoTriangle were against BRT simply because they have romantic notions about trains, why are they planning for BRT service in Wake County? BRT is also going into project development in Chapel Hill’s north-south corridor. The truth is, our region’s transit plans call for both light rail and BRT – using each technology where careful study shows it to be the best solution.
4) Orange and Durham already have twice as many transit trips as Wake. We may be smaller than Wake County, but we punch way above our weight in transit ridership. In fact, Durham and Orange counties already have 72,000 transit trips a day, twice as many as Wake County. Despite our size, Chapel Hill Transit is the second-largest transit system in North Carolina because so many of us depend on it. GoTriangle is projecting demand for light rail transit in our area at 26,880 trips a day by the year 2040. GoTriangle didn’t just pull ridership estimates out of thin air; they carefully based them on our existing transit use. In discounting our significant level of transit use both today and in the future, critics dismiss the many people in our communities who depend on transit.
5) If we ditch our plans for light rail, federal money goes away – and nothing gets built for years. Critics want you to think we can simply switch from light rail to buses and get busy building a BRT system this year. It doesn’t work that way. The FTA invests hundreds of hours of analysis before choosing to commit taxpayer funds to a project. If we ditch our light rail plan, Orange County’s federal funding disappears. Starting from scratch and reapplying for funds will take years before the federal government will even consider contributing to a BRT project. Given that they already agreed light rail is the right choice for the Durham-Orange corridor, they might not fund BRT at all.
Durham-Orange light rail opponents are probably OK with that. Some of the most vocal critics see our community as merely a bedroom suburb for RTP and Raleigh, and they seem to have little interest in alternatives to their cars. Meanwhile, many of our neighbors depend on transit every day to access jobs, school, health care, and recreation and to participate in civic life.
If you believe having access to fast, frequent, reliable, high-capacity transit is better than maintaining the status quo for years to come, the time is now to let elected officials know you’re a supporter of the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project.
Molly De Marco lives in Chapel Hill. She is an editor with OrangePolitics.com.