When I moved to Chapel Hill in 1983, I was enthralled by the Triangle J Council’s vision of a light-rail system connecting the major population nodes of the Triangle. Unlike a fine wine, this proposal has spoiled with time, and now that Wake County has rejected light rail as a transit option it’s time to stop this train in its tracks. Simply put, Durham and Chapel Hill lack the population density necessary to justify the capital and operating costs of light rail transit (LRT).
The project as it is currently conceived is based on fundamentally unsound ridership projections, and if the Charlotte experience with LRT is any guide, will probably not result in any appreciable reduction in traffic congestion between Durham and Chapel Hill. Furthermore, the routing of the proposed light rail track is not aligned with the higher-density compact neighborhood developments in Orange and Chatham counties; including the Ephesus-Fordham, Glenn Lennox and Obey Creek communities. Lastly, there is no incentive to take light rail to reduce travel time between Durham and Chapel Hill, with an estimated LRT time of 42-44 minutes end to end, versus a projected automobile commuting time of 27 minutes in 2040.
Academic studies reviewing the cost and feasibility of light rail projects across the U.S. indicate that most of these projects require an annual 70 percent taxpayer subsidy, as the ridership fare collection only supports a small percentage of the annual operating costs. The $1.6 billion capital cost associated with this project ($94 million/mile) is not a responsible use of scare resources for mass-transit development when equally effective and lower-cost alternatives exist. Present and future technologies such as Uber ride-sharing and autonomous smart-driving cars may render much of our current mass-transit systems obsolete, with the promise of cheap and convenient door-to-door service that will trump the inconvenience of walking to a transit stop, or driving to a parking lot and then waiting to catch a bus or train.
A research working paper from the University of California-Berkeley, which analyzed urban light-rail mass transit, indicated that a population density of 30 people per gross acre, or roughly 19,000 people per square mile (ppsm), was necessary in order to support LRT. The Chapel Hill-Durham corridor has a population density less than 20 percent of that threshold, with a current density of approximately 3,000 ppsm, which is predicted to rise to 4,000 ppsm in 2035.
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The ridership projections for the Durham-Orange LRT stretch credulity, with estimated daily boardings of 23,000. This is in contrast to the Charlotte LRT system, with daily boardings of 16,000 – which has been static since inception in 2007, while the population has increased 17 percent, with no measurable decrease in traffic congestion – in an area with a population 70 percent larger than the Triangle! These ridership projections are further inflated with the working assumption that 40 percent of households in the Durham-Chapel Hill corridor will not own automobiles in 2040, which flies in the face of current ownership levels and assumes a tectonic shift in public behavior.
The Robertson Scholars Express Bus between Duke University and UNC runs every 30 minutes between campuses for 16 hours each weekday, yet averages only five riders per bus on a 40 passenger bus. Data from the 2009-2013 American Community Survey of Commuting traffic flows indicates a mere 1,259 mass transit daily commuters cross between Durham and Orange County lines. Is it plausible that LRT would boost that demand by ten-fold as the ridership projections assume?
Let’s learn from Wake County and make smart and affordable choices for our community by rejecting LRT.
David Hardman lives in Chapel Hill.