Is $138 million a price you want to pay to connect Durham and Chapel Hill by light rail? Not me, and here’s why: The bus already does this – other places in the Triangle, too – and it’s a fraction of the cost. Though that’s not exactly why legislative leaders were against it, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Well, maybe just this one time.
I know, I know. The Triangle is getting bigger, and traffic is terrible. We’re 2 million people strong and counting. In fact, we’re growing faster than nearly any area in U.S. We’re also spread out. At low traffic times, downtown Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill are about 30 minutes apart, but when traffic peaks, the journey can double.
So, how do we fix the traffic problem? Light rail is one option, but that’s a bit like winning a bid to host the Olympics or World Cup. It will be fun, bright and shiny for a few weeks, but once the hangover kicks in, you’ll have some regrets. For starters, the total cost of $1.3 billion is a lot of money. It comes from a couple of different sources, but think of this as your tax money, federal or state, plain and simple. You’ll also feel pretty bad about displacing existing people and businesses. Recall the Durham Expressway construction that ripped the historic Hayti neighborhood apart. What did they get? A new pedestrian bridge with blue lights 25 years later.
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If you want to read about the benefits of light rail, go elsewhere. It’s not that I disagree that light rail would improve traffic or cut carbon emissions and make this a greener, cleaner world. I agree, and I’m all for that. It’s just that I don’t think the benefits of light rail come remotely close to costs, financial or otherwise.
Another option – the one I favor – is to ride the bus. I know there are many reasons not to. You have to get the kids to practice, the bus takes way too long, it’s dirty, inconvenient, you need flexibility and so on. But these same excuses apply to light rail; it will just be clean for a bit. The benefit of the bus is that the infrastructure already exists, and there’s a lot of it. And despite the inconveniences, just ride it once a week to work.
If that happened – if every person rode the bus once a week – the Triangle would take up to 20 percent of cars off the road each work day. How fantastic would that be? That $1.3 billion could be spent on something else. N.C. has chosen to dump its $136 million into bridges and roads, and considering bridges nationwide are in poor shape, it seems like a better use of money to me. So, take the first step and examine the Triangle Transit and city bus routes and schedules and find something that works for you.
Another benefit of the bus is that there is room for growth. I ride the express bus from Durham to Raleigh nearly each day, and I know there are six buses that make the trip. To be generous, let’s say there are 50 people on each bus. That’s a grand total of 300 people on this route, one that connects two cities with a combined population of nearly three-quarters of a million people. That’s an excellent opportunity to increase ridership.
Triangle Transit’s hands aren’t completely clean, either. It has been pushing the light rail because it would make it a ton of money. Returns from the bus are marginal at best. The agency needs to refocus its analytical power on the bus and figure out where to add new routes, hubs and stops and fight for a high-occupancy vehicle lane on Interstate 40. The new Wake Forest and Orange Express routes are great, but they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
The Triangle is getting bigger. I just hope it doesn’t get too big for its britches. Let’s demonstrate first that we can ride the bus. Durhamites, this shouldn’t be a problem. The bus is vintage, economical and hip, but not too hip. People from Chapel Hill, a full bus gets better gas mileage per person than a full Prius, saving more trees.
After the Triangle conquers the bus in 20 years or so, let’s talk about light rail.
Kevin Bigsby of Durham rides the bus to his job as a research scholar at N.C. State University.