Chapel Hill News

Orange County residents make final pleas in support, opposition to light-rail project

An artist's rendering of a light-rail train running beside U.S. 15-501 over New Hope Creek in Durham.
An artist's rendering of a light-rail train running beside U.S. 15-501 over New Hope Creek in Durham.

GoTriangle gave residents the last word Tuesday at an Orange County public hearing on the proposed 17-mile, $1.8 billion light-rail line from UNC Hospitals to Alston Avenue in Durham.

More than a hundred residents and several local leaders, including Durham Mayor Bill Bell, attended the public hearing at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill. The majority oppose all or part of the plan.

GoTriangle will give Durham County residents a similar opportunity Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m. in the Durham County Commissioners chamber, 200 E. Main St. The regional transit agency plans to take comments on the plan through Oct. 13 at its website (ourtransitfuture.com).

Comments will be included in the final version of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement before it’s submitted to the Federal Transportation Administration in February. A DEIS that indicates the “locally preferred route” is required when seeking federal bus and rail system dollars.

Federal approval would be a positive sign that federal dollars could help pay up to 50 percent of the project’s cost, GoTriangle officials have said. It also would start the design and engineering phase.

The plan also relies on 25 percent in local funding, from a half-cent sales tax that Orange and Durham voters approved for transit, vehicle registration fees, fares and a rental car tax. The remaining 25 percent is expected from the state.

GoTriangle was promised up to 10 percent, or $138 million, as part of the state Strategic Transportation Investments program, but a recent state budget provision capped light-rail funding at $500,000.

The state House voted Monday night to remove that cap, but Senate leaders, instead of bringing the bill to a vote, sent it to the Rules Committee late Tuesday. The move leaves the $500,000 cap in place at least until next year.

Proponents said light rail would be more environmentally friendly than adding cars to already-congested roads as the region grows. Light rail could help ease future congestion by reducing traffic now, they said, and give UNC and Duke students and employees another way to commute.

Chapel Hill’s Town Council unanimously backed the light-rail plan Monday, Councilwoman Maria Palmer said.

Population growth can’t be stopped, she said, but “what we can do as responsible public servants is to make decisions that prepare the community, so that we can have the least impact to our environment, the least pollution, the least traffic.”

Chapel Hill resident Daniel Cole agreed. The light-rail line will pass his condo, making it difficult for him to drive in and out, he said, but sometimes there are “sacrifices for the greater good.”

“Buses will not work as well because they also have to use the roads,” Cole said. “To help the environment, to help the community, we have to get cars off the road.”

The plan’s critics argued light rail is an outdated technology with the potential to create many unsafe, at-grade crossings and traffic jams on smaller roads that intersect with N.C. 54. They also questioned GoTriangle’s numbers, which put the potential ridership at 23,000 boardings a day by 2035.

Despite several changes, including increased travel times, several hundred fewer parking spaces and re-aligned tracks, Downing Creek resident Alex Cabanes said GoTriangle is standing by its original ridership data.

“The projected 23,000 daily boardings was built on numerous flawed assumptions,” Cabanes said, including that 40 percent of households in the rail corridor won’t have cars. The Census Bureau puts the number without cars now at 10.4 percent in Durham and 7.4 percent in Chapel Hill, he said.

Downing Creek neighbors want the rail line to follow its original path through Meadowmont, across the highway. Many Meadowmont residents oppose that plan.

Bill Ferrell, with the Meadowmont Community Association Board of Directors, said the C2A route past Downing Creek is the best, because it protects the wetlands, offers the best investment for the money, and has the highest potential for attracting riders and affordable housing.

That route skirts the southern edge of N.C. 54, turning north just over the county line until it crosses Farrington Road to parallel I-40. It would require GoTriangle to buy six properties through eminent domain, including one that has been in the same family since 1888, resident William Pitts said.

Neighbors think the Farrington Road crossing and a proposed rail operations and maintenance facility – ROMF – are incompatible with surrounding homes and an elementary school. The ROMF could leave the neighborhood facing increased stormwater runoff, noise and traffic, Pitts said.

“A BRT, or bus rapid transit system, will serve the area much better at far less cost to taxpayers who will have to support the project and will be flexible and be able to provide the safest (option as) … conditions change over time,” he said.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Add your opinion

Triangle residents have less than two weeks to comment on plans for a 17-mile light-rail line from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Alston Avenue in Durham.

A public hearing will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 1, in the Durham County Commissioners chamber, 200 E. Main St. in Durham.

The deadline for submitting comments about the plan’s draft Environmental Impact Statement to GoTriangle is Oct. 13. The regional transit agency plans to submit the final report to federal transportation officials by February.

A copy of the draft Environmental Impact Statement is available at ourtransitfuture.com or at the Chapel Hill Public Library. Comments can be submitted to GoTriangle by email to info@ourtransitfuture.com; or mail to D-O LRT Project – DEIS, c/o Triangle Transit, P.O. Box 530, Morrisville, NC 27560.

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