Chapel Hill: Opinion

Durham and Orange counties have come too far to give up on light rail now

Beginning five years ago, voters in Durham and Orange counties demonstrated their support for a regional light-rail system and related transit improvements. In November 2011, 60 percent of Durham County voters approved a half-cent sales tax for transit. This plan includes buses between both counties and a 17-mile light-rail system. Orange County voters followed suit in 2012 by approving, by 59 percent, a half-cent sales tax.

Where are we now on implementation? Bus service is improved. Evening/weekend hours have been added in the urban areas and new bus service between Efland/Mebane and Durham has been introduced. The Hillsborough train station is on the books with the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization. Chapel Hill’s bus rapid transit system recently gained Federal Transit Administration approval for project development. The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit (D-O LRT) project is being improved with the addition of a station at N.C. Central University, thanks to public feedback.

The challenge we now face with the light rail project is that the state will provide 10 percent of the funding, not 25 percent as it has for past projects. We are faced with a funding shortfall of approximately $250 million.

A Funding and Community Collaborative made up of leaders from local universities, health care institutions, government and the private sector is working to bridge the gap. The initiatives include right-of-way donations from public and private partners and solicitation of private-sector funds. These and any additional project savings will be incorporated into the project budget before the counties are asked to invest more money.

How will the Orange County government help meet this challenge? In December the Orange County Board of Commissioners can sign a nonbinding letter of intent to work with Go Triangle and other community partners to identify the funds needed – approximately $40 million – to complete the D-O LRT project. This letter is simply a way ensuring that we do not drop out of the FTA approval process before we have explored ways to address the funding challenges.

Orange County will receive an updated transit and financial plan in April 2017. Additional local funds need not be committed until June 2018. There will be multiple opportunities for Orange County to decide whether to make that investment.

Right-of-way donations, solicitation of private-sector funds and any additional project savings will be incorporated into the project budget before the counties are asked to invest more money.

The D-O LRT is projected by 2040 to support approximately 27,000 passenger trips a day. Working in coordination with the bus systems operated by Chapel Hill Transit and Go Triangle, the light rail system will greatly enhance mobility, opening up more employment opportunities to more people by making commuting options easier. The tools of local land use planning, which already favor locating new development along transit corridors, can be leveraged to support the communities’ interests in a range of housing affordability options.

For all households, reduced dependence on automobiles offers the benefit of a lower cost of living. The Federal Highway Administration estimates that households in auto-dependent locations spend 25 percent of their income on transportation. And for those who do not use the system regularly, the benefits are substantial. Reducing auto travel is key to addressing road congestion as well as to reducing our carbon footprint.

In short, though funding challenges to the D-O LRT Project are real, your elected leaders are proceeding carefully in evaluating the costs and the benefits. At this juncture, all that is being asked is a renewed commitment of intent.

We’ve come too far to place years of careful planning in jeopardy. As the voters in both counties have recognized, light rail promises to improve the quality of life for all of us.

Submitted by Orange County Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier, Chapel Hill Town Council members Sally Greene, Ed Harrison and George Cianciolo and Carrboro Board of Aldermen members Damon Seils and Bethany Chaney.