Chapel Hill: Opinion

Don’t count your TOD chickens before they hatch – Tony Blake

Light tail and transit-oriented development (TOD) might create more efficient land-use patterns and create a balanced set of transportation choices where automobiles exist alongside other options, if TOD with light rail is well designed and deployed, but the jury is yet to be instructed in that trial.

A look at existing projects that claim transit orientation reveals most have fallen short. Meadowmont, for example, rejected housing a Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit station, using the Little Creek watershed crossing as a reason. The fact this wasn’t already resolved highlights poor planning: how was Meadowmont allowed to proceed under the promise of TOD without a full discussion with the Army Corps of Engineers? Exactly why did Chapel Hill move the route from Meadowmont to the other side of the N.C. 54 highway and at the same time permit construction of a car wash within a half-mile of Woodmont station which is TOD development? Successful TOD requires coordinated planning and zoning between the two cities and counties that is definitely not in evidence.

Another reoccurring problem with TOD development is the abandonment of existing physical infrastructure and building stock. That depreciation is wasteful from an economic and environmental standpoint and contributes to economic decline in the areas left behind. Large parts of the U.S. 15-501 corridor are one such example, brought to you again by questionable route choices and assumptions.

The DOLRT project not only depreciates an existing corridor, but it creates a new one in and encourages dense development near two critical watersheds; Little Creek and New Hope. By routing DOLRT in this way, the increase of impervious surfaces and destruction of wetlands further reduces aquifer replenishment and degrades downstream Jordan Lake water quality. Replacement of tree cover with asphalt and buildings creates urban heat islands that raise temperatures and accelerate the formation of smog and ozone.

Affordable housing begins with affordable neighborhoods. Despite our local leaders’ promise of increased affordable housing as a justification for DOLRT, history shows local government reliably accept less than 15 percent affordable housing while taking cover in state laws that remove tools to keep rents affordable. Since economics dissuade developers from building the mix necessary to eliminate the need for a car entirely and land costs continue to skyrocket, any cost benefit claim to not owning a car is quickly negated. Until then, low-wealth people and families will be economically incentivized to move farther away, increasing sprawl.

The less promising term Transit Related Development is more appropriate. Transit stations lack a mix of land uses. Moreover, many DOLRT station designs fall short of yielding the full range of potential benefits because most of the stations in Orange County will be on tax-exempt UNC property. With little to no private investment, they constitute a Transit University Related Development rather than a true integration of land use and transit. This results in a project that does not make up a balanced neighborhood where people can accomplish daily tasks without a car.

Simply calling something TOD is not enough. What scale of development is necessary to make TOD work in different contexts, including stations on university property? How can a project strike a balance between providing adequate parking to remain economically viable without allowing it to detract from the pedestrian and transit orientation of the neighborhood? How much affordable retail and of what type is needed to serve the resident population and workers so that they are not car-dependent? What are the plans for the $3.3 billion investment when it is prematurely made obsolete by the whole range of disruptive transit services that do a far better job of getting people point to point?

These are the kinds of questions to which GoTriangle planners have had few answers, instead they arrange glossy marketing presentations for residents who do not know what questions to ask. They call it “outreach” and tick the box on the FTA form. Mission accomplished.

People are celebrating the claims of TOD – risking enormous amounts of taxpayer money – in the face of overwhelming changes in culture and technology. Do not let ideology declare success and move on without following through or taking responsibility.

Tony Blake lives in Orange County.