Chapel Hill News

Transit experts: Orange, Durham not ready for light rail

A map of the proposed light-rail line from UNC Hospitals to Durham
A map of the proposed light-rail line from UNC Hospitals to Durham Triangle Transit

Triangle Transit is advancing plans for a future light-rail line between Chapel Hill and Durham, even as local critics and some experts continue to question the wisdom of spending nearly $30 million on required studies.

There are no guarantees that federal or state funding will be available to pay most of the $1.4 billion project cost, Triangle Transit General Manager David King said. An application to start the years-long federal funding process could be filed later this month.

Critics argue taxpayers don’t have money to throw at a light-rail plan that may or may not happen. Instead, they would like to see Triangle Transit put more of that money into local and regional bus routes, even adding more express routes, commonly called bus-rapid transit.

A panel of experts appeared to validate those concerns in November when the men told the Wake County commissioners that the region lacks the population density, traffic congestion and ridership for a light rail. Wake County’s transit plan and a voter referendum on sales taxes to pay for it are on hold.

The experts – Florida State University economist Sam Staley, former Denver transit chief Cal Marsella and Steve Polzin the transit research program director for a University of South Florida think tank – acknowledged by phone recently they didn’t spend as much time reviewing the Orange-Durham plan. However, what they saw in the regional financial data also makes it hard to justify, they said.

They offered Orange and Durham officials the same advice they gave Wake County: Be patient.

“You really need to let your community grow and be open to the kind of needs that develop,” Staley said.

Small metro region

According to census data, roughly half a million people could live in Orange and Durham counties by 2030. Well over a million could live in Wake County, but the Orange-Durham rail line won’t go near Raleigh-Durham International Airport, Cary or Raleigh. Triangle Transit officials anticipate more than 14,000 daily light rail boardings between UNC Hospitals and the Alston Avenue station, east of downtown Durham, by 2035.

That makes the Triangle one of the country’s smallest and lowest-density metro regions, the experts said. Staley, also a researcher with the Los Angeles-based, libertarian think tank Reason Foundation, said twice as many riders and taller, denser development is what keeps light rail cost effective. Rapidly changing transit technology also reduces the benefit of a 30- to 40-year rail investment, he said.

King said he thinks the men weren’t given the information or time for a deeper understanding of regional needs.

The traffic between Chapel Hill and Durham is constant, whereas other cities see traffic one way in the morning and another at night, he said. Orange-Durham’s proposed rail line would connect two dense universities and hospitals, traveling along U.S. 15-501 through a “pretty unappealing roadway,” he said.

That also could change over the next 10 to 15 years, as transit plans help determine whether surrounding developments are dense or sprawling, he said.

Triangle Transit is funding the Orange-Durham plan through vehicle registration fees, voter-approved sales tax revenues and other resources. Roughly 75 percent of Orange County’s new money could go to the light rail over the next 15 years. Bus-related capital costs are estimated at nearly $50 million, with $4.6 million in annual operating and maintenance costs.

Cheaper options

The experts agreed the Triangle could be better served now by putting more money into cheaper, flexible options – more than the 34,000 new bus service hours already planned for Chapel Hill Transit, Orange Public Transportation and Triangle Transit in the first five years.

Another possibility is more bus-rapid transit routes that use dedicated lanes or get the right of way in traffic. One $24.5 million route is slated for Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, from Eubanks Road to UNC Hospitals, by 2019.

Marsella, who ran Denver’s regional transit system for 14 years, said Triangle area data, including forecasted economic growth, show the busiest bus routes still have room to grow. Rural bus services also should be added ahead of light rail, he said. One option is more demand-response, or dial-a-ride, services that group passengers by destination. The system could route buses to particular destinations, whether that’s shopping centers or medical appointments, on the same day every week, he said.

Many Orange County critics, including Bonnie Hauser, president of the rural neighbors group Orange County Voice, and County Commissioner Earl McKee, have pushed for more bus service in the last few years.

Marsella said local and state transit officials also might find more creative solutions by working together. In either scenario, the state’s congressional delegation is “very well positioned” to help shepherd project money through Congress, he said.

Triangle Transit’s upcoming application to the federal funding program could begin the project development phase – a two-year window for completing a required environmental impact statement. They should know within two months of applying if the project is eligible for up to a 50 percent reimbursement of the studies’ roughly $29 million cost, King said.

It’s not without financial risk, but if all goes as planned, engineering work could start in 2015, he said.

“The Federal Transit Administration is weeding out projects they do not believe can make it,” he said.

Beyond numbers

Polzin noted that the decision to build a light-rail line isn’t always based on numbers. For some communities, it can be a point of pride or a lifestyle choice, he said. The key to success is having residents who want light rail, will use it and are willing to invest in it, he said.

Other cities have reported both light rail successes and failures. Denver is building one of the country’s most ambitious projects, launched in the late 1990s. A $4.7 billion financing plan, which voters approved in 2004, outlines 122 miles of light rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit, 21,000 new parking spaces and enhanced bus service. It could serve 3.39 million people in eight counties by 2025.

However, a 2009 report found unexpected delays, a lack of system-wide planning for best- and worst-case financial scenarios and public participation that didn’t happen early enough. Critics said the plan was based on unrealistic cost and sales tax revenue estimates and didn’t take steps to make sure the necessary rights of way were in place.

Marsella said higher right-of-way costs and sales taxes lost after the 2008 recession put a big dent in Denver’s ability to pay for projects. The economy has rebounded, and today, only one line isn’t built or under construction, he said.

Triangle Transit has made conservative financial estimates, including the cost of future maintenance and inflation, King said. Another money-saving option: Buy used train shells and outfit them with newer wheels and other parts.

Triangle Transit also is looking at every source of funding, whether it be public, private or a combination, he said.

“It would be foolish not to be looking at how to hedge your bets a little bit,” he said.