Light rail will benefit all of Orange County

A GoTriangle illustration of a Durham-Orange Light Rail stop.
A GoTriangle illustration of a Durham-Orange Light Rail stop. Contributed

After more than 20 years of planning, Orange and Durham County are on the cusp of building a transformational high-capacity transit system that will help us absorb the steady influx of new residents while reducing the strain on our roadways, limiting vehicle emissions, and protecting our beautiful rural areas from sprawl.

Simultaneously the Durham-Orange Light Rail (DOLRT) will connect the UNC and Duke Medical Centers, two of the largest employers in the state, and create more than 20,000 local jobs while generating $175 million annually in new state and local revenue.

After several intensive studies of the proposed transit corridor connecting UNC, Duke, and NC Central University that considered alternatives to light rail such as Bus Rapid Transit, light rail emerged as the best technology to serve the already highly-traveled area. During rush hour periods, a bus passes UNC Hospital every 42 seconds and once every 80 seconds at Duke Medical Center.

In 2011 and 2012, Durham and Orange County voters strongly supported a half-cent sales tax to fund light rail, bus system expansion, an Amtrak station in Hillsborough, and future commuter rail to Raleigh. Financial analysts concluded that, with strategic phasing of the construction and implementation of the various components of the regional system, the revenue stream will fund all the components.

With its 18 miles of track and 19 stations, it is longer than most light rail systems in the country. The cost for this, which will be the biggest construction project in North Carolina history, is high. The base price of $2.48 billion, plus financing costs through 2062, could be about $3.3 billion depending upon many variables

With a large majority of the system within Durham County, Orange County’s share of the project cost is $149.5 million of the principal, or approximately $290 million when financing over 40 years. Some say we can’t afford it, while others claim that it will not benefit them.

The fact is, we are all connected and you don’t have to ride the train to benefit from the many positive impacts it will bring. Everyone will benefit from lower emissions, keeping cars off our roads, and the transit dividend — redeploying buses that the DOLRT will assign to other routes. Everyone will benefit from GoTriangle’s commitment to hire local people and minority businesses to fill the thousands of jobs which will be created.

The station areas will become transportation hubs featuring sidewalks, bike paths, and new bus routes to provide access to the stations. The bike and pedestrian infrastructure will give us healthy, environmentally friendly options. We will be able to create walkable neighborhoods for residences and businesses that are way less dependent on and fractured by vehicle traffic. In conjunction with the lessening of pollution, these new land uses will help to combat climate change.

If we unify around our commitment to affordable housing, we can take advantage of the increased revenue from transit oriented development to fund a lot more affordable housing than we do currently. By locating affordable housing near the stations, the diminished need for parking spaces can save over $100 a month per space that can be deducted from the cost of rent. Couple that with the savings from potentially not owning a car and we will have made a huge impact on affordability and created real opportunities for upward mobility.

Orange County is changing. The visionary decision thirty years ago to create the Rural Buffer transformed our county into a contained and increasingly dense urban center surrounded by natural beauty, a rural way of life, a growing local food economy, and protected watersheds.

This light rail system is a continuation of that vision and our values that will continue to preserve the character of Orange County by providing the most environmentally sound mass transportation option available, concentrating development where we want it, curtailing sprawl, saving trees, generating revenue for housing and schools, and providing equitable access to jobs, education, and medical care.

Mark Marcoplos and Penny Rich are members of the Orange County Board of County Commissioners.