Much has happened since Orange County voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase for transit. With a recovering economy, the tax is producing more money than expected, but there are signs that the project is running off the rails.
There’s good news. A new Amtrak station is coming to Hillsborough, connecting their town center with Raleigh, Durham and points west. Also a small increase in funds will help improve service for Chapel Hill Transit and Orange Public Transit. New bus routes have been added for Mebane, Efland and northern Orange, and Chapel Hill is slowly adding off-peak service for shift workers at UNC.
Then there’s light rail (LRT). The $2.2 billion project has been beset with problems, and things are getting worse. State funding isn’t coming, opposition is mounting against rail lines and maintenance facilities, and advocates are realizing it only serves a narrow corridor between UNC and Duke. Triangle Transit (TTA) has spent over $40 million to study the rail corridor only to uncover more obstacles.
The last straw came last month when Wake County announced it is not pursuing LRT because it is “too costly and inflexible.” Instead, Wake is considering options based on Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and Rail Rapid Transit (RRT) which involves diesel-powered units using existing rail lines. Under any scenario, Wake’s citizens will enjoy county-wide transportation sooner and for a lot less money than Orange County will spend for 17 miles of service between UNC and Duke.
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Wake’s announcement makes integrated regional transportation system less likely unless TTA-Orange-Durham changes course. Under a separate planning process, Wake will now compete for limited state and federal funds. Wake’s larger population, and lower per-mile cost will quickly dwarf the TTA-Orange-Durham LRT plan.
It’s worth noting that Wake’s county leaders sought an independent view to get transit on the right track. Rather than rely solely on TTA, Wake Transit retained the expert advice of an independent consultant with no vested interest in LRT or any other outcome. Plus they invited representatives from all their towns to participate in the planning. Now everyone is excited about transit.
Compare that to the Orange-Durham LRT plan, which originated in the 1990s. Since then, our population and employment centers spread to Mebane and RTP, and more are coming to Chatham. Chapel Hill’s own “2020 focus areas” are struggling without the benefit of transit to alleviate traffic impacts. Local transportation planners ignored the shift, and in the unlikely event that LRT goes forward, investors along N.C. 54 and downtown Durham win big – while low- income communities will continue to need cars to access better-paying jobs in Wake and Alamance counties.
Under the current contract, a change to the LRT project requires a unanimous decision from Orange, Durham and TTA. Given the challenges facing the implementation of LRT and the latest moves by Wake County, isn’t it time to at least restart the conversation?
Bonnie Hauser lives in Orange County and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org