Light rail is an important part of our future. Orange County continues to grow.
We, like the rest of the Triangle, expect to see the number of new residents greatly increase through 2040. Where they will live and how they will move around the region are issues your elected leaders have been wrestling with for years. Land-use issues are being determined at the local level in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough and Orange County. How we will move around is a big challenge.
We have a bus and rail investment plan that will fund more transit options. Already we have seen new and expanded bus service in both the rural and urban areas. Additional services, bus-stop amenities, and park-and-rides are on the drawing board. In a 2012 referendum, 60 percent of those voting told us they want these improvements.
GoTriangle successfully completed the environmental work for light rail. Thousands of Orange County residents have been part of our public workshops and shared comments on this project. The Federal Transit Administration recently signed the Final Environmental Impact Statement/Record of Decision and Planners are preparing for the engineering phase which would be followed by construction. Local funds that make up the 25 percent local share continue to come in. Light rail is expected to be operating in Orange and Durham County by 2025-26.
The level of state funding is currently under discussion. With 50 per cent of the rail project’s funding expected from the federal government and the county’s 25 per cent local share, we are working to secure the remaining 25 per cent state share for the transit plan. In the final days of the 2015 legislative session, the state legislature moved to cap all light rail funding at $500,000. Later, the N.C. House, by a vote of 82-27, moved to lift the cap. The governor and N.C. DOT do not think that lawmakers intended to reverse the data-driven formula for funding transportation projects. The measure is back in the Senate this spring and could be decided in the short session.
The new mobility formula was created with overwhelming bipartisan support. Lawmakers passed the Strategic Transportation Investments law in 2013, hoping to take politics out of transportation planning. The $138 million in state funding for the light rail project was included in the 10-year transportation plan based on how well it scored, not only locally, but one that did well when evaluated on measures like economic competitiveness, congestion mitigation and safety.
The state funding is not needed during the next phase of preliminary engineering. There is time to lift the cap. We are also exploring other funding options such as public/private partnerships which have been successful in other light rail projects across the country.
Based on the legislative action, on Jan. 7, 2016, the State Board of Transportation reprogrammed the $138 million for the Durham-Orange light rail project. We are confident that the cap will be lifted in the short session and that this funding will be restored.
We know that today’s younger workforce, and competitive industries want to locate where they have more transit options and greater connectivity.
The Durham-Orange Light Rail Project promotes job growth and quality of life. Our continued collaboration with state and local leaders and citizens in Durham and Orange counties is the most productive way to make that happen.
Bernadette Pelissier is an Orange County commissioner and member of the GoTriangle board. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org