Durham-Orange light rail is dead, but these transit projects will keep going next year

Revised transit plans don’t include any new big-ticket projects to replace the now-defunct Durham-Orange light-rail line, but rural and urban residents could see more bus services and upgraded stops in the next year.

A regional group’s draft Fiscal Year 2020 Durham and Orange County Work Plans are the first transit plans proposed since the light-rail project fell apart in March.

While a plan connecting Orange, Durham, Wake, and potentially Alamance and Chatham counties could take a year or more, work continues on other goals outlined in the 2017 Durham and Orange transit plans, said Aaron Cain, a senior transportation planner with the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Projects that could happen in the next year include an Amtrak train station in Hillsborough and better bus, bike and pedestrian access across Durham.

“I think we’ve done our best to identify projects that can be accelerated and delivered to enhance transit service in our region in the upcoming year,” Cain said.

The draft plans were created by technical staff from both counties and other local and regional stakeholders. The public can comment on the plans, which are available online (bit.ly/2HpQzFV) and at several locations, through May 30.

Staff work groups will review a final plan incorporating public comments June 5 and make a recommendation to the GoTriangle Board of Trustees. GoTriangle, a regional transit agency, manages the local transit funding under an agreement with Durham County, Orange County and the DCHCMPO.

The money

Funding for local and regional transit projects comes from a half-cent sales tax and car rental and registration fees. The money can only be used for public transit projects.

According to GoTriangle documents, Orange County had raised roughly $41.7 million for transit by June 2018, while Durham County had raised $150.5 million.

GoTriangle officials expect the final cost for the work done on the light-rail project to reach roughly $158.5 million later this year as the agency closes out consultant contracts and office space, and pays real estate-related legal fees, software costs and project employees.

The amount raised since June 2018 for transit will be reported in GoTriangle’s fiscal year 2018-19 annual report, due this summer. Based on 2017-18 funding levels, Orange County could get over $9 million this fiscal year, and Durham County could get over $34 million.

Roughly a third of the expected 2019-20 revenues — $14.4 million — will pay for bus and rail projects. Some of that money was set aside in previous years to help with future expenses.

Durham County’s plan

Durham County’s draft $8.6 million spending plan for fiscal year 2019-20 includes:

Rural transit: $67,000 for the first year of subsidized vanpool service to northern areas of the county. Vanpooling typically serves long-distance commuters — typically a group of five to 15 people. Riders pay a fee to support the service, which will replace prior plans for a Rougemont park-and-ride lot with bus service to the Duke and Durham VA medical centers. That plan was deemed too expensive.

Expanded bus service: $3.6 million to expand and add bus services and routes

Bus purchases: $72,850

Bus stop improvements: $3.2 million for a number of projects, including shelters and seating at 31 bus stops, and $500,000 to design 50 future bus stops. The plan also includes $1.9 million for sidewalks, bus stops, pedestrian crossings in three busy corridors: Holloway Street, Fayetteville Street and Chapel Hill Road. More money could be allotted in the future.

Transit centers: Roughly $1 million would add more sidewalks, better bus stops and pedestrian crossings at the Village in East Durham, and improve the park-and-ride facilities at The Streets at Southpoint and Patterson Place.

Planning and staff: $957,428, primarily to draft a new Durham County transit plan, which would replace the 2017 plan

Extra funds: $800,000 left over from the 2018-19 budget will advance Wake-Durham commuter rail project planning

Orange County’s plan

Orange County’s draft $5.8 million spending plan for fiscal year 2019-20 includes:

Expanded bus service: $2.8 million, including $305,776 to expand the Alamance Connector between Mebane and Hillsborough, add a Cedar Grove-Durham express route, and expand and increase the frequency of the Hillsborough Circulator bus route. Another $36,192 would add wheelchair accessible service in rural areas on Fridays and Saturdays.

Bus purchases: $170,045 for new Chapel Hill Transit and Orange Public Transportation buses

Bus stop improvements: $1.1 million, about half of which would pay for better bus shelters, signs and lighting; disability access; and a park-and-ride lot in northern Hillsborough. GoTriangle also plans to upgrade bus stops on Rogers Road in Carrboro and in Mebane.

Hillsborough Amtrak station: $285,000 (construction is pending). The N.C. Department of Transportation will pay most of the $8.1 million cost to build the train station off South Churton Street. GoTriangle is paying $686,000 for engineering and project work — from Orange County transit money — and the town paying $34,000, plus any cost overruns.

Sidewalks: $10,169 for a long-term project adding bike lanes and a sidewalk on Estes Drive Extension from Carrboro to Chapel Hill

Planning and staff: $633,078, primarily to draft a new Orange County transit plan, which would replace the 2017 plan.

Extra funds: $2 million left over from last year’s budget will support Chapel Hill’s North-South BRT project. The money is part of the $6.1 million in transit funding dedicated to the roughly $123 million to $135 million project. The BRT project needs up to $10 million more by late 2019 to continue moving through the process for a federal grant that could cover 80 percent of the project cost.

Learn more and weigh in

Comments about the draft Fiscal Year 2020 Durham and Orange County Work Plans can be submitted online. Comments also can be submitted to Aaron Cain, senior regional transportation planner: phone 919-560-4366, ext. 36443; email aaron.cain@durhamnc.gov; or mail to the City of Durham Department of Transportation, Attn: Aaron Cain, 101 City Hall Plaza, Durham, NC 27701.

Copies of the work plans can be found online or at these locations:

Durham County

City of Durham Transportation Department and Durham City-County Planning Department, 101 City Hall Plaza

East Regional Library, 211 Lick Creek Lane

North Regional Library, 221 Milton Road

South Regional Library, 4505 S. Alston Ave.

Southwest Regional Library, 3605 Shannon Road

Stanford Warren Branch Library, 1201 Fayetteville St.

Orange County

Orange County Planning Department, 131 W. Margaret Lane, Hillsborough

Chapel Hill Planning Department, 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Carrboro Planning Department, 301 W. Main St., Carrboro

Hillsborough Planning Department, 101 E. Orange St., Hillsborough

Chapel Hill Library, 100 Library Drive, Chapel Hill

Orange County Public Library, 137 W. Margaret Lane, Hillsborough

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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.