Opinion

CON: It’s time to let go of the old light rail plan

This crossing at Blackwell, Corcoran and Pettigrew streets could be closed if a GoTriangle plan proposed in October for the Durham-Orange light-rail line goes through. Local stakeholders are concerned the closing will be a bad move for downtown’s vibrancy.
This crossing at Blackwell, Corcoran and Pettigrew streets could be closed if a GoTriangle plan proposed in October for the Durham-Orange light-rail line goes through. Local stakeholders are concerned the closing will be a bad move for downtown’s vibrancy. Contributed

Thirty years ago, our local community leaders had a vision for regional transportation that used light rail to connect the Triangle. The vision included light rail lines that went everywhere and had the potential to reduce sprawl and make the Triangle a bustling economic center and a wonderful place to live without a car. It was a dream we all shared.

Over the years, the plan changed into something very different. Wake and RTP decided not to wait for light rail to get people out of their cars and onto public transit. Light rail did not meet their needs and they moved on. As a result, Wake and RTP are already realizing their public transportation goals with high frequency buses, ride-sharing, and soon a bus rapid transit system that makes it easier to get around town without a car.

Durham and Orange meanwhile have made no progress. For us, light rail has been the only solution and we have been willing to agree to anything to keep it going. A once simple light rail corridor has morphed into a clumsy roller coaster with sharp curves, tunnels, and elevated tracks as it has become evident that the light rail as originally planned was unworkable. It’s still ten years away.

The project cost for the Durham Orange Light Rail has ballooned to well over $3 billion and it will not be paid for until 2060. Federal and State funding, once expected to fund 75 percent of the project, now covers 30-40 percent, at best. All this for a single train that takes nearly an hour to go from UNC to NCCU in Durham. It doesn’t go anywhere near RTP, Raleigh or RDU airport.

By GoTriangle’s estimates, DOLRT will serve less than 5 percent of the population and 70-80 percent of the riders will get to the light rail by car. While all this is happening, traffic on I-40, I-147, NC54 and 15-501 will have become impassable, with congestion and emissions increasing every day. Can we really wait ten years to make things better?

Those in Durham and Orange who rely on public transportation to get to work or school or shopping can’t wait that long. Our climate can’t wait that long.

Duke and Durham business leaders who have invested heavily in downtown Durham share our vision for regional transit. They too realize that DOLRT won’t get us there. A new plan is needed to achieve our vision for a progressive, transit oriented community. DOLRT is not the only option. It’s just a plan that is taking up all the oxygen in the room.

Once we let go of light rail, we can immediately move forward and offer convenient, high frequency bus services into every community. We can affirm our commitment to electric bus fleets and even extend service into Northern Orange County, Chatham, and Alamance. We can offer more demand services to our aging population. In half the time and cost of DOLRT, we can have commuter rail service from Durham to RTP to Raleigh. That’s enough to make anyone want to get out of their car.

We all want regional transportation that moves us around, contributes to economic vibrancy and affordability, and is good for the planet. We know this needs to happen now. It’s time to follow the example of Wake and the Triangle. It’s time to let go of the old light rail plan and start realizing the dream of public transportation, now.

Bonnie Hauser writes here on behalf of Affordable Transit For All, a coalition of groups from Durham and Orange who are working for regional transportation.. The coalition’s members include the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT), Orange County Voice, the Northern Orange NAACP, Schley Grange, Smart Transit Futures of Durham, and others.

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