Durham and Orange can’t afford to miss this train to the future

A rendering of a proposed light rail station for downtown Durham.
A rendering of a proposed light rail station for downtown Durham.

We stand on the brink of an opportunity that comes along only rarely in the life of any community—the opportunity to make a transformational change that will improve the lives of our residents for generations to come.

It has taken us 20 years to get here, and now we face a very stark choice. In the next 25 years, Durham alone will grow by 150,000 residents. The Triangle region will grow by 1,000,000 people. We will either begin to build our transit system now, or in 15 years we will be the largest metropolitan area in the nation without a rail system. Our quality of life will die as traffic crawls along our bumper-to-bumper streets and freeways.

In April, GoTriangle, our regional transportation agency, will submit an application for a $1.24 billion federal grant to build the Durham-Orange light rail line, which will form the first critical backbone of a regional rapid transit system.

All the indications are good that these funds will be available to us. We have strong support from Sens. Tillis and Burr as well as from Rep. Butterfield and Gov. Cooper. Crucially, Rep. David Price is the new chair of the House committee that oversees transportation appropriations, and he is an ardent champion of the project. This is our time.

The money is essential, but it is what the money will do that matters most.

We will be starting construction in 2020 on an 18-mile electric rail line that will serve three of the ten largest employers in North Carolina, and this line will connect directly to a planned commuter rail line that will run between Durham, RTP and Raleigh with shuttle service to the airport.

We will be fighting the highway gridlock that threatens our quality of life, and we will be doing the single most important thing we can do locally to fight climate change.

We will be creating over 30,000 new jobs.

We will be offering affordable, reliable, and sustainable transportation to people who need it most. Two-thirds of Durham Housing Authority homes are within a half-mile of a station. Tens of thousands of Durham residents do not have a car, and for many of them the light rail will be life-changing, for the same price as a bus ride.

Any project this big has its critics, and big community decisions deserve healthy debate. One criticism has been that Durham is “mortgaging its future” for light rail. This could not be further from the truth. While some additional local expenditures will be necessary, the vast majority of local funding was committed by Durham and Orange voters in transit sales tax referenda that passed with overwhelming majorities in both counties. This sales tax funding is committed solely to transit, so the light rail isn’t competing with schools, affordable housing, social services, parks or the arts for funding. In fact, it is estimated that development around stations will bring in an additional $2 billion in property taxes over the next 40 years to fund community needs.

In the next few months, we have to take critical final steps to meet all federal requirements. This includes determining what additional local funds might be required. It also includes completing cooperative agreements with our partners at the N.C. Railroad and Duke University, and we are deeply appreciative of the positive ongoing work on these agreements.

After 20 years of effort, we are approaching the finish line on a project that will transform our region and serve our people for the next century. We must not let this opportunity pass.

Steve Schewel is Mayor of Durham. Wendy Jacobs is chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners. and Ellen Reckhow is a County Commissioner and chair of the GoTriangle Board of Trustees. Schewel and Jacobs are also members of that board.