Road Worrier Blog

Milestone report moves Durham-Orange light rail forward

Artist's concept of a Durham-Orange Light Rail train at a station in downtown Durham.
Artist's concept of a Durham-Orange Light Rail train at a station in downtown Durham.

More years of engineering and disagreement lie ahead and more than $1 billion in public funding still must be nailed down, but Durham and Orange counties are making progress on the development of their planned 17-mile, 17-station light rail line.

GoTriangle, the regional bus and transportation planning agency, has just released a milestone report that answers questions about where the trains will go, where they’ll stop and why.

But it won’t settle all the arguments about the $1.5 billion to $1.6 billion project, especially for some residents in southwest Durham and east Durham.

It’s a draft environmental impact statement, to be published formally late this week by the Federal Transit Administration. You can read it and comment online at, and ask questions and offer your views at public meetings and hearings scheduled over the coming five weeks.

The light-rail line will be anchored at one end by UNC Hospitals and at the other by Duke Medical Center and downtown Durham stops. Along the way it will pass through residential, commercial and office neighborhoods that are expected to see vigorous growth in coming years – some of it concentrated around the planned rail stations.

More than half the train riders (around 23,000 daily boardings projected by 2040) are expected to walk or ride their bikes to the train stations, with the rest coming by bus or car. Eight new park-and-ride lots will be added up and down the line, with spaces for more than 5,000 cars.

In addition to the hospitals and other job centers at each end, some of the heaviest traffic and busiest parking lots are expected at places that are little-known or nonexistent today. This offers clues about where we might see new transit-oriented economic development in the years ahead.

Thousands of those new rail riders are expected to pull off Interstate 40 and U.S. 15-501 to park at what are now little more than dots on the map marked as Gateway and Leigh Village. Thousands more will park at the Friday Center off N.C. 54 in Chapel Hill and the Dillard Street and Alston Avenue stations off N.C. 147 in downtown Durham.

Voters in both counties delivered overwhelming mandates for light rail and other transit improvements a few years ago, when they decided to help pay for it with a local sales tax of one-half percent. But folks in a few neighborhoods still don’t like how the plans are shaping up.

East Durham residents and Durham City Council members were unhappy when GoTriangle retreated from its original plan to put the eastern end-point station east of Alston Avenue (N.C. 55). The new spot is a couple of blocks west of Alston, farther away from some low-income neighborhoods such as McDougald Terrace.

“There’s a pedestrian bridge over N.C. 147 on the east side of Alston that goes over to many low-income neighborhoods on the other side,” said John Hodges-Copple, regional planning director for the Triangle J Council of Governments. “One of the original plan benefits was that it would better serve those locations.”

Planners say they were boxed in by a nearby water tower and other structures that limited station space, and by N.C. Railroad expansion plans that won’t leave room for the addition of twin tracks needed to extend light rail east of Alston Avenue. They say they’ll work to make the station west of Alston easily accessible to surrounding neighborhoods.

“Our ridership numbers for the east side of the line still look pretty good,” GoTransit spokeswoman Natalie Murdock said Monday.

GoTriangle’s preferred site for a 25-acre rail operations and maintenance yard is on Farrington Road. Planners had considered a tract on Cornwallis Road, but there were conflicts with neighbors including the Judea Reform congregation and Levin Jewish Community Center.

“It really provides the best layout of all the sites,” Murdock said of the Farrington Road property. But at public hearings next month, other residents in that southwest Durham neighborhood, a rural area undergoing suburban development, are likely to continue their complaints about noise, traffic and property values.

And there will continue to be opposition from residents of the nearby Falconbridge and Downing Creek neighborhoods about the most contentious decision spelled out in the environmental report: GoTriangle’s intention to run the light-rail line along the south side of N.C. 54 for a few miles around both sides of the Orange-Durham county line.

Light rail planners say this path will allow for shorter train trip times, attract more riders and risk less environmental harm than alternate routes that also were considered.

But these issues aren’t settled, said Jeff Mann, GoTriangle’s general manager. Public comments and suggestions have swayed other decisions about the light-rail line, including the location of a Duke Medical Center station and a route that will lift the tracks over New Hope Creek near U.S. 15-501.

“We value all of these comments, and we will consider them in the further design of this project,” Mann said. “We encourage continued public participation and input.”

What’s next on the Durham-Orange light rail line

The document is available at libraries in Orange and Durham counties and online at

Two public information meetings are planned for Sept. 15, 4-7 p.m., at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill, and Sept. 19, 2-5 p.m., at the Durham Station Transportation Center in Durham.

Two formal public hearings are planned for Sept. 29, 4-7 p.m., at the Friday Center, and Oct. 1, 4-7 p.m., in the Durham County Commissioners chamber, 200 E. Main St., Durham.