After light rail: Durham, Orange leaders must still figure out how we move around

[This story was corrected at 10:30 a.m. April 4 to reflect correct attribution.]

Orange County commissioners vented their frustrations Tuesday before voting to officially stop the Durham-Orange light-rail project and craft a new transit plan.

And Wednesday, Durham leaders considered what happens next with the light-rail corridor, planned rail-yard land, and other issues.

The 18-mile light-rail line was part of a larger plan to move people around the region over the next 50 years, Orange County Commissioner Sally Greene said. It would have guided growth, she said, and fostered housing, education and job opportunities.

“We [now] may be headed for a future in which the major population centers of Orange County are cut off in a way from the rest of the Triangle,” Greene said. “We’re not participating in those back-and-forth benefits, nor are we sharing the responsibilities that we have as being part of a fast-growing, thriving region.”

Durham County commissioners will vote to end the project April 8. That vote will open a 20-day window in which staff from both counties will meet with GoTriangle and the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro regional planning group to begin drafting a new transit plan.

On Wednesday, a group of Durham city and county leaders got an update on what they need to figure out next. Planning Director Patrick Young said there are four areas to consider: the rail corridor, the planned rail operations maintenance facility in southwest Durham, the proposed zoning of Patterson Place and how to provide high-quality transit service. Patterson Place was a planned light-rail stop in southwest Durham.

The Durham City Council’s rezoning for the rail yard drew a lawsuit. According to the zoning passed, only a light-rail yard may be built there; anything else would require another rezoning, Young said. He said GoTriangle is evaluating what to do with the site. [An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed GoTriangle’s evaluation of the rail yard property to Ellen Reckhow, not Young.]

Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, whos on the GoTriangle Board of Trustees, said it will take a year to 18 months to update the transit plan.

The counties will work individually on their local plans and together on regional connections, said Travis Myren, Orange County’s assistant county manager.

GoTriangle will meet April 24 to tie up loose ends on the light-rail project.

Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee advocated for more local control in a new regional plan and the opportunity for Orange County to walk away if necessary.

A way county officials “have control and have a say over the services we provide,” he explained, “and not have GoTriangle come to us and present this is what you’re going to get.”

The light-rail line succumbed after decades of planning and over $130 million spent. Duke University’s opposition to the planned route along Erwin Road may have been the final straw, but there also were growing costs, state deadlines and railroad companies’ reluctance to sign a cooperative agreement and lease land for the rail line.

The GoTriangle board voted to stop the project March 27.

Durham County Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs, who’s also on the GoTriangle board, wants to salvage the work already done.

“I just think that we absolutely need to preserve the corridor and everything we invested in it in terms of where the jobs are, population growth and the community,” Jacobs said.

“The corridor is the corridor for a reason,” she said. “I think we’ll figure out something else to serve the corridor.”

Reckhow said that while GoTriangle is thinking regionally, Durham needs to think about itself, too.

“This is a big deal. It really is ... and we’ve got to get it right this time. There’s so many things I could say, but I don’t want to belabor it,” she said.

Regional opportunity

Neither county is expected to repeal the half-cent sales tax that was funding the transit plan, including light rail.

The tax will continue to help pay for more bus services, a Wake-Durham commuter rail line, and an Amtrak station in Hillsborough, as well as any future regional plans.

That could be the opportunity to bring Chatham and even Alamance counties, including Mebane, into the conversation, some Orange County commissioners noted Tuesday.

Chatham’s nonprofit bus service won’t be able to keep up with the growth that’s coming, especially once Chatham Park adds 60,000 new residents, they said. Many are expected to join the traffic already heading into or through Chapel Hill each day on U.S. 15-501.

It also presents an opportunity to do more for Orange County’s rural residents, McKee said. While regular bus service might not work in those areas, he said, a more direct, Uber-like service could transport people who lack a car or need to get to medical appointments without spending an entire day on an Orange Public Transportation van.

He also suggested looking at bus-rapid transit routes between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro, Hillsborough and in rural areas along N.C. 54.

Help for bus systems

Others have suggested looking at how transit money could be used to shore up the GoDurham and Chapel Hill Transit bus systems.

Both bus systems are facing budget shortfalls and potential cuts after several years of deep reductions in state transportation funding and the federal grants that help buy new buses. The cost of providing transit services also has grown.

While the sales tax and car rental and registration fees funding transit can’t be used for operating shortfalls, they can be spent on new or expanded services. Orange County, which amended its plan in 2012, also can use the tax revenues to meet unexpected budget increases, such as if the price of fuel were to skyrocket.

Local needs are important, Commissioner Mark Dorosin said, but a regional system is critical.

“A regional system, which is what we desperately need to address all the issues [raised] is not going to be one that serves every single person in the county and every single transportation need that every person in the county has,” he noted. “That’s just the reality of it.”

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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.
Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.