Recent actions taken by the General Assembly have catapulted the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project (DOLRT), the proposed 17-mile rail line stretching from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Alston Avenue in east Durham, back into the news.
Republican legislative leaders continue to be hostile to the proposal despite its high rating under the Strategic Transportation Investments law, a transparent, data-driven transportation funding process enacted in 2013 with broad bipartisan support.
But their efforts to undermine great public transit should not cause us to waiver in our support for the project. The light rail line is one of the most critical infrastructure projects proposed for our region, and the Triangle needs it now more than ever. Here’s why.
DOLRT serves the right areas
DOLRT will serve three of our region’s largest employers: UNC Hospitals, Duke University Medical Center, and the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. DOLRT will also serve downtown Durham, with its booming residential and job growth.
By the numbers, DOLRT will directly serve over 25,000 households, 53,000 residents and 119,000 jobs in 2040. That same year, the line will generate an estimated 23,000 passenger trips per day – 6.7 million per year. That’s 23,000 trips that won’t be made in cars and won’t contribute to our already congested roads.
DOLRT serves communities who need transit the most
DOLRT will serve transit-dependent and low-income communities. For example, DOLRT will cut transit travel time from Alston Avenue to Patterson Place from 51 minutes on a bus to just 27 minutes on light rail.
DOLRT will also expand access to jobs for low-income residents living along the line, enabling access to economic opportunities previously unavailable.
The light rail corridor has a 65 percent higher percentage of low-income residents dwelling within it than both Durham and Orange counties, illustrating how DOLRT is specifically designed to serve transit-dependent and low-income individuals.
DOLRT makes financial sense
Bus rapid transit has its place in a comprehensive transit plan – but so does light rail. Nowhere does light rail make more sense than along the proposed corridor. There is significant evidence to support this fact.
An extensive alternatives analysis considered light rail and two bus rapid transit options for this corridor. The analysis concluded that while the bus rapid transit options cost approximately 70 percent of the light rail transit option to construct, neither bus rapid transit option delivered the quality and frequency of service of light rail, nor met stated community objectives of stimulating transit-oriented development. Furthermore, the analysis warned of higher operating and maintenance costs over time for the bus rapid transit options compared to light rail.
The bottom line from this extensive analysis: Light rail is a better financial investment for our region, and it better meets our community goals for transit-oriented development.
Bus rapid transit cannot deliver the same quality of service that DOLRT will
Buses cannot do what DOLRT can because bus vehicles are inefficient at moving people compared to light rail. A light rail vehicle can carry hundreds of people at once; a bus can only carry 37-50 people at a time .
Today, during rush hour, a bus arrives at UNC Hospitals about every 42 seconds. It takes about 30 seconds for the bus to load and unload passengers. Bus timing at Duke University Medical Center is similar. These employment centers are quickly approaching the capacity of bus vehicles’ ability to move people. A light rail vehicle can move more people more quickly in and out of these locations.
DOLRT works with regional transit plans, including Wake County’s BRT network
Multimodal transit systems—systems that use different types of transit, like light rail, bus rapid transit, local and express bus service, and commuter rail – are the systems of the future. Peer regions, like Denver and Seattle, already have multimodal systems with seamless transfers that enable riders to move from one type of transit to the next.
What this means is that Wake County’s bus rapid transit plan is perfectly compatible with DOLRT. In fact, the light rail line fills in a vital link that Wake County considers part of its plan, enabling someone from Raleigh to use transit to get to Durham and then onto Chapel Hill and back to Raleigh. It’s also worth noting that Wake County’s plan does include a commuter rail line connecting Garner to Durham.
A great regional transit system isn’t about the specific technologies we use; it’s all about how we connect those technologies to make transfers easy, with more frequent service and an integrated payment system. Current planning by GoTriangle includes plans to make these components a reality.
We need transit to work with new transportation technologies
Uber and self-driving cars will not solve our transportation problems – and Uber knows it. That’s why the company has entered into partnership with GoTriangle and transit-tracking technology company TransLoc to develop new technologies that integrate Uber with transit service, making it simple for riders to use Uber to supplement their transit trip – not replace it.
Cars face the same problem as buses: They cannot move as many people as quickly and efficiently as light rail. Ride-hailing services also face an affordability problem. Virtually all Uber rides cost a minimum of $5 each, and usually cost far more than that, especially at peak times. An unlimited GoTriangle day pass costs just $6 for all-day transit use. GoTriangle is also working to implement innovative monthly price structuring to make transit even more affordable for low-income riders. Uber cannot match the affordability that transit offers.
We need – and want – DOLRT
Some voices in our local media continually oppose DOLRT, but these voices are in the minority. As Public Policy Polling found in 2015, 69 percent of Chapel Hill voters support DOLRT.
It’s unfortunate state legislative leaders do not support investment in North Carolina’s rapidly growing urban areas. But their misguided obstructionism should not alter the transit vision we have developed for our region. With or without state investment, transit infrastructure is a necessity for continued prosperity, and the Durham-Orange light rail line is the anchor and catalyst we need for our future.