The latest action from the General Assembly just might end the Durham-Orange Light Rail (DOLRT).
Last week, the legislature decided to cap LRT at $500,000 per project. Go Triangle was hoping for $400 million – or 25 percent of the $1.6 billion project. Without state support, federal funds are less likely. In our view, this action opens the door for local leaders to finally start working on regional transportation for the rapidly growing Triangle.
The legislature’s action is the latest in a series of setbacks for the GoTriangle-led project. Its latest report, presently undergoing public hearings, shows that the DOLRT will not meet initial expectations and costs have gone up. Safety issues surfaced as the result of route changes, and the placement of the maintenance facility adversely impacts unsuspecting residential neighborhoods. According to the latest report:
▪ The trains are getting slower. It is now estimated to take 42-44 minutes (instead of the original 34 minutes) to travel end-to-end. That’s slower than Bus Rapid Transit, an alternative that was prematurely eliminated because it was too slow at 39 minutes.
▪ Service is less frequent. Now trains will run every 20 minutes, or 10 minutes during peak hours (instead of every five minutes originally envisioned).
▪ The recommended route requires 42 at-grade crossings that introduces safety concerns and more local traffic congestion.
DOLRT was never going to do much for traffic congestion. That’s because most rush-hour commuters are driving to areas not directly served by DOLRT. Commuters using Park’n’Rides (and Kiss’n’Rides) serving the DOLRT are likely to make local congestion worse.
With the majority of our transportation funds going to DOLRT, there’s been no money left to connect Durham or Chapel Hill to the new growth centers in Wake or RTP, or to provide service to RDU. Major new developments planned for Chatham, Mebane and throughout Chapel Hill (like Obey Creek) will not be served by DOLRT at all. GoTriangle has already spent an estimated $50 million on LRT studies, while Chapel Hill Transit struggles to maintain its aging bus fleet.
Accelerating economic and technology trends have also been working against this project. Fare increases and lower gas prices are being blamed for the recent and dramatic drop in ridership on Charlotte’s LRT (bit.ly/1UQpUoI) while doing nothing to reduce traffic congestion (bit.ly/1IzDh0d) or attract new riders (bit.ly/1MvCfd). New services like Uber and social media are creating new opportunities for flexible ride sharing programs, and self-driving, autonomous vehicles are on the horizon. It’s likely that LRT would be obsolete before the first fare was collected – about 10 years from now.
Wake County has already started working on a different track. They are committed to public transportation, and announced that it will not be LRT. With over a million people and growing, Wake leaders realize that solutions such as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) or Rail Rapid Transit (RRT) do more to create a flexible, affordable, county-wide network that serves all of their growth centers.
For Durham and Orange, the single Duke-UNC LRT corridor may have made sense in the 1980s when LRT planning began. Since then, growth patterns have changed dramatically. A single-service corridor doesn’t work. More than ever, we need a system that connects Durham and Orange with the entire Triangle and that can adapt with growth and change. With most of our transit funds consumed by DOLRT, there would be little money left for a real public transit system.
Most of us believe in public transit, but have not been paying attention to the details. After approving the half-cent sales tax, many voters were disappointed to learn that the planned LRT would run between Duke and UNC, and primarily serve communities that are least dependent on public transportation while ignoring the areas most dependent. There’s no rapid service to RTP, Wake, RDU or new growth centers such as Chatham Park and Mebane.
More recently, established neighborhoods at Downing Creek and Farrington Road were adversely impacted, while Alston Avenue, NCCU and Durham Tech weren’t getting much needed services. Low-income workers would continue to rely on multiple bus connections to get to low-paying jobs at UNC since there’s little or no service to better paying jobs elsewhere.
A few would benefit, especially developers of properties along the proposed rail line. Well-paid millennials who can afford to live in the new developments will like it too – unless they happen to work in RTP, Wake or Chatham.
Now that the legislature has sent a clear message about LRT funding, local leaders in Orange and Durham have the opportunity to change course and start working with Wake leaders on a regional public transportation system for the future.
Alex Cabanes (firstname.lastname@example.org) and John Martin (email@example.com) of Durham County, and Bonnie Hauser (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Orange County are members of the Smart Transit Future Coalition. To learn more, go to http://SmartTransitFuture.org/. To respond to this column, email email@example.com; please include your name for possible publication.