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Have questions about the Durham-Orange light-rail project? Here are some answers.

Leaders and residents discuss Durham & Orange Counties’ light rail project

Leaders and residents of Durham and Orange Counties share why their community light rail project is so important for the future of innovation, environmental vitality, and economic opportunities in the region.
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Leaders and residents of Durham and Orange Counties share why their community light rail project is so important for the future of innovation, environmental vitality, and economic opportunities in the region.

By 2030, rush-hour commuters could spend more than 30 minutes driving the five miles from Franklin Street in Chapel Hill to South Square in Durham on U.S. 15-501, regional transit planners say.

They say the wait could continue to grow by one minute a year if the $2.47 billion Durham-Orange light-rail line doesn’t give drivers another option.

The project also could attract investment in dense, walkable residential and commercial neighborhoods around its stations, instead of sprawling strip malls and subdivisions, and indirectly reduce some carbon emissions, according to the planners.

But first, Durham and Orange counties need a $1.23 billion federal grant to cover half of the project’s cost. A final application is due to the Federal Transit Administration by April 30.

Read more about light-rail funding at bit.ly/2thnZQi.

The 17.7-mile light-rail train — part of a planned regional transit network that one day could connect Durham and Orange with Wake and other counties — would run from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham. GoTriangle planners have said it initially could serve over a third of the people commuting each day in the towns and between them.

A single light-rail train car holds 150 to 170 passengers and runs on a dedicated track, powered by an overhead wire, in mixed traffic or a dedicated right of way. The Durham-Orange line could run every 10 minutes at peak times — every 20 minutes other times — covering the system from end to end in under 55 minutes.

If all goes as planned, construction could start in 2020, and GoTriangle could begin serving light-rail passengers by 2028.

Fares haven’t been worked out yet, but the Charlotte Lynx light-rail system charges $2.50 for a one-way trip and $6.60 for a day pass, with discount fares for children, students and seniors.

Read more about Orange County’s economic development expectations at bit.ly/2T6O4ju.

Read more about Durham’s plans for housing and jobs at bit.ly/2Ek24ys.

Where will it go?

There are 19 proposed stations on the light-rail line: four in Orange County (three on UNC land), two in the Chapel Hill portion of Durham County and 13 others in Durham County.

In recent months, plans for two bridges and a tunnel were added to the downtown Durham corridor. That could add at least $81 million to the project’s cost. The changes came after downtown business leaders panned a plan to close the Blackwell Street railroad crossing between the downtown core and the Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham Bulls Athletic Park and American Tobacco Campus.

Read more about the Durham changes at bit.ly/2E5vT5J.

Despite calls for a transit system that also connects with Research Triangle Park, Raleigh-Durham International Airport and Wake County, planners have said too few Durham and Orange County riders are going to those destinations to justify the expense, and the stops in Research Triangle Park are too far-flung to be served by light rail.

Patrick McDonough, GoTriangle’s manager of planning and transit-oriented development, said U.S. Census data showed roughly 32,000 employees a day commuted between Durham and Chapel Hill by car, bus or another mode of travel in 2013.

About 10,200 of those were Durham County residents commuting to work at UNC, its hospital or nearby. Only 4,800 Durham County residents and 3,200 Chatham County, Chapel Hill and Carrboro residents commuted to Research Triangle Park for work, figures show.

Another 129,370 workers either lived and worked in Durham, or lived and worked in Orange County. Those commuters also could be served by the regional transit network of light-rail trains, buses and a 37-mile Durham-Wake commuter rail line being developed.

Light rail also won’t serve most of Orange County, including Chapel Hill’s shopping centers on U.S. 15-501. The corridor, considered ripe for light rail at one time, is now too congested and dense to site a rail line, stations and land for new growth without a significant investment. Building light rail in the middle of the highway would be even more costly and potentially hazardous for people trying to board the trains, planners have said.

On the other hand, N.C. 54 already has some of Chapel Hill’s highest bus ridership numbers and will move more university and health care workers in the future, officials said.

Read more about the selected route at bit.ly/2ScFqeX.

Cost and funding

Light rail won’t happen without a Federal Transit Administration grant for $1.23 billion, and although President Donald Trump previously proposed funding cuts for transit projects, Congress has rejected those proposals. The 2018 election that gave Democrats control of the U.S. House also made U.S. Rep. David Price, an Orange County Democrat and light-rail supporter, a ranking member of the House subcommittee that oversees federal transportation and housing funds.

The FTA funding decision is needed by Nov. 30 to meet a deadline for getting $190 million from the state.

Learn more about the FTA rating system and how the project scored in 2017 at bit.ly/2DvHn0F.

Read more about changes in state funding for the light-rail project at bit.ly/2thnZQi.

Durham and Orange counties have signed a cost-sharing agreement for roughly 39 percent of the construction costs — just over $1 billion — and plan to use money from a half-cent sales tax, and car rental and registration fees, to pay the local costs.

Each county’s cost share is based on how much of the light-rail line serves its neighborhoods:

Orange County: The commissioners capped light-rail construction payments at $149.5 million, or 6 percent, plus 18.5 percent of any interest on debt (now $156.7 million to $168 million)

Durham County: $796 million, or 32 percent, plus 81.5 percent of any interest on debt (now $690.3 million to $740 million)

GoTriangle’s nonprofit GoTransit Partners is raising the remaining 4 percent, or $102.5 million, in land and cash donations.

If the group falls short — about $15 million has been committed so far — GoTriangle could use a “backstop” measure, filling the gap with local dollars until the donors come forward. Project critics have said those dollars could require tax increases or cuts to other services, but light-rail supporters expect those dollars to come from the transit sales tax and fees.

Read more GoTransit Partners news at bit.ly/2NeMRS2.

Durham and Orange county leaders could get a final light-rail construction budget and cost-sharing agreement by March.

Read more about the light-rail agreement at bit.ly/2SdHh3c.

Alternatives

If federal or state funding falls through, there is no Plan B. The agreement between Orange and Durham counties, GoTriangle and the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro regional transportation planning group requires them to meet within 15 business days to consider other solutions, including a search for other money; delaying, suspending or reducing the project; or stopping the project.

If the project stops, officials would meet within another 20 business days to draft a new transit plan. If they can’t agree, it will go to mediation and then an arbitration hearing before three judges — one picked by each county and one picked jointly.

Light-rail critics have suggested forgoing light rail for another transit option, such as a bus-rapid transit network similar to what Wake County is planning. BRT systems — larger buses running on dedicated tracks or in mixed traffic with signal priority — have lower start-up costs and more flexibility, but the costs are higher for personnel and vehicle maintenance and replacement.

BRT also doesn’t address sprawl with the compact, mixed-use development that light-rail stations attract, McDonough said.

Read more about GoTriangle’s study of bus and rail alternatives at bit.ly/2UOyHJM.

Critics also have suggested waiting to see how new technologies affect transit, such as ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft, and driverless cars. Transit officials said those “last-mile solutions” work with transit to take people farther than they are willing to walk, but they also contribute to sprawl and congestion, while doing nothing to encourage economic development.

Critics also echo a panel of transit and economic experts who told Wake County officials in 2013 that the region lacks the necessary population density, traffic congestion and ridership for light rail.

Read more about what the experts said at bit.ly/2TMCKpN.

Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.
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