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Road Worrier: Light rail moves ahead in Durham and Orange

A concept illustration of a Durham-Orange Light Rail train at a station in downtown Durham near Durham Street.
A concept illustration of a Durham-Orange Light Rail train at a station in downtown Durham near Durham Street. Courtesy of GoTriangle

While Wake County folks try to work up an appetite for bus rapid transit service, their western neighbors are rolling ahead on the planned Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project.

The Federal Transit Administration issued a pair of documents last week to signal that the environmental review is complete and the significant issues about where to lay the tracks have been settled.

The 17-mile rail line would be anchored by UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, and in Durham by the Duke and VA medical centers and the Bull City’s burgeoning urban core. Along the way – running along N.C. 54, Interstate 40 and U.S. 15-501 – the tracks and stations would provide focal points for some of the region’s steady economic growth in coming decades.

There are still some unhappy residents at the eastern end of Chapel Hill who dread the trains that would run close to the Falconbridge and Downing Creek subdivisions along N.C. 54. And just north of there on Farrington Road, a planned 25-acre rail operations and maintenance center would not be a welcome neighbor in a quiet rural neighborhood.

But the newly released Final Environmental Impact Statement justifies these choices as the best options available to Go Triangle, the regional transit service and planning agency. It holds Go Triangle accountable for minimizing the environmental and safety risks related to the rail yard and to the trains – 140 each day – that would zip back and forth across side streets on the south side of N.C. 54. If all goes as planned, service would begin in 2026.

Bigger challenges, political and financial, lie ahead. Go Triangle will be asking the feds to cover 50 percent of the project’s $1.6 billion cost.

And local leaders in Orange and Durham counties – most of them Democrats – must persuade the Republican-led legislature this spring to reverse an abrupt vote last summer that outlawed all but token state funding for light rail.

Triangle folks have been counting on the state to pay 25 percent of the bill, as it did for a pair of light-rail lines in Charlotte. But the 2015 state budget included a surprise provision that capped state spending at $500,000 for any future light-rail project. Chapel Hill’s former mayor called the vote a “project killer.”

Durham and Orange planners and politicians will try to un-kill it when the short session convenes in April. They are banking on support from business leaders and officials in the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory, who criticized the anti-light-rail measure last year.

“We remain confident that the cap can be lifted,” Jeff Mann, Go Triangle’s general manager, said Monday.

Even with that challenge, prospects for rail transit still look better in 2016 than they did a decade ago, when the region’s last plan for trains fell apart.

State funding was not an issue in 2006 for an $810 million, 28-mile rail line that would have run through Durham, Research Triangle Park and Raleigh. But the Federal Transit Administration pulled the plug, citing doubts about sufficient ridership and the lack of strong local political and financial support.

This time, Orange and Durham voters and leaders have committed a half-penny local sales tax and other local revenues to cover at least 25 percent of the project cost.

And even though the Durham-Orange line would not serve the Triangle’s biggest job centers in Raleigh and RTP, it seems likely to earn more favorable ratings when the federal agency evaluates it for ridership, cost-effectiveness, traffic congestion relief and mobility access for low-income residents.

Wake and Raleigh are bigger and growing faster, but they can’t hold a candle to Orange and Durham counties when it comes to using public transportation.

Chapel Hill and Durham residents take a combined 70,000 bus trips each day, according to figures in the rail project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement, released last week. That’s comparable to transit ridership levels in the state’s biggest city, Charlotte – which counted 73,000 daily trips in 2006, just before the launch of its successful first light-rail line.

Unlike Charlotte’s heavy morning-in, afternoon-out commuter streams – and unlike any of the light-rail lines that have been considered in Raleigh – the Durham-Orange line can be expected to have a healthy two-way flow of traffic during the day and evening.

The trains would take workers, students, shoppers, hospital visitors and cultural-event travelers in both directions. And they’d serve a demand that persists after 5 p.m. every Friday, when RTP goes dark for the weekend.

Before our legislators decided last year that light rail was worth only $500,000, the Durham-Orange project competed successfully against highway and bridge projects to win a commitment from the state Department of Transportation for $137 million.

It’s surprising to learn that this 17-mile line can be laid down on the map without causing upheaval from one end to another. Dave Charters, Go Triangle’s engineering and design manager, said it’s because most of the tracks would run alongside existing roads, within DOT’s right-of-way.

An estimated 45 residences would be displaced, along with 20 businesses and institutions. Drivers on Erwin Road would adjust to making right turns, only, when entering or leaving most businesses. In Chapel Hill, Finley Golf Course would redesign its 17th hole.

After the Federal Transit Administration’s recent approval, and a follow-up evaluation expected in a couple of months, Go Triangle will be able to purchase land for the project and tackle the final engineering work – a three-year task. Private developers may begin to look more closely at opportunities around those planned station sites.

“As we reach each milestone for the project, it’s another big step going forward,” Charters said. “It’s a signal to developers that the project is more real.”

Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project

A 17-mile, double-track line from UNC Hospitals to Duke/VA medical centers and downtown Durham, ending at Alston Avenue. With 17 stations.

Where the trains will go: Follow N.C. 54, I-40 and U.S. 15-501, travel up the median of Erwin Road and then follow the N.C. Railroad tracks.

Park and ride: 5,100 parking spaces at 8 stations.

Light-rail trains: Powered from overhead electric wires. Each train starting with one or two cars, with future option for three cars. Each car seats 40-60, with up to 125 riders including those standing.

Service hours: 5:30 a.m. to midnght. Every 10 minutes during morning and afternoon rush hours, otherwise every 20 minutes.

Expected travel time, end to end: 42-44 minutes.

Cost: $1.6 billion: 50 percent federal, the rest shared state and local.

Timetable, depending on funding: Construction starts 2019, service starts 2026.

2040 projections

Durham-Orange corridor transit boardings each day: 40,000 (23,000 light rail, 17,000 bus)

Population near light-rail stations: 53,000

Jobs near stations: 119,000