The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project will work fine in Durham and Orange counties because they have the state’s highest share of transit commuters, with an impressive 71,000 bus trips each day, equaling Charlotte’s 2007 pre-light rail bus system.
The proposed DOLRT corridor sees nearly 17,000 bus riders per day, including rush-hour buses running every minute or two at Duke and UNC Hospitals, two critical employment centers. Some buses can be replaced by larger single-operator light rail vehicles, moving more people per driver and yielding a lower cost per passenger than existing buses. These buses can be redeployed to other areas, spreading the operating benefits of light rail to other corridors.
For decades, advocates have fought to protect natural treasures like Maple View Farms and the Eno River. In a growing community, however, environmental activism must also mean building things. Light rail can be a magnet, pulling growth toward existing centers and away from rural places and water supplies. Electrically powered light rail’s potential to run on renewable energy can move us toward a lower carbon future.
DOLRT would advance economic opportunities, particularly for residents east of Downtown Durham who lack good access to jobs and are more likely to depend on public transportation. While today’s bus trip from Alston Avenue to Patterson Place can take nearly an hour, light rail would cut that nearly in half. Fast, frequent, all day, congestion-proof transit service can connect these residents to jobs centers, saving precious time and money.
Despite its sizable capital cost, light rail can be a great value. By leveraging federal funds for 50 percent of its cost, the community can bring home tax dollars that it has sent to Washington for decades to build rail in places like Minneapolis, Denver and Phoenix. Avoided costs are important, too. Studies show that suburban sprawl costs the United States $1 trillion each year by increasing land consumption, car use and higher auto fatality rates. Beyond the human toll, a “do nothing” option resulting in more driving has real costs, potentially in the tens or hundreds of millions. Light rail’s superior ability to efficiently move people can avoid costly highways such as a planned US 15-501 expansion, potentially saving hundreds of millions more.
Light rail projects in Charlotte and Minneapolis-St. Paul attracted $1.8 billion and 2.5 billion, respectively, in new transit-oriented development. While no official economic development estimates exist for the DOLRT, given the region’s excellent economic health, strong levels of private investment may be possible, spurring more investments similar to East 54, Berkshire Ninth Street and 605 West Main St in Durham.
What about Wake County, RTP, RDU and Bus Rapid Transit? With strong bus ridership already, the DOLRT project can stand on its own, insulating it from uncertainties in Wake, though its design will link it with any bus or rail options that Wake County may approve. While RTP leadership recognizes and is working on its design challenges, its 7,000 acres contain zero residents, and its 40,000-plus jobs are spread across sprawling campuses with ample free parking, discouraging transit use for some time.
While RDU may be a logical place to run buses today, it’s a low priority for rail access. To put airport transit demand in context, Washington’s National Airport is served by an ultra-frequent, high-speed subway connecting an airport more than twice as busy as RDU with over one million jobs, yet it barely ranks in the top half of Metrorail’s 91 stations for ridership. While BRT is promising and appropriate for many applications, existing bus congestion at the hospitals and ridership projections indicate the need for higher capacity light rail service to handle the anticipated corridor demand.
Finally, Durham and Orange voters each approved light rail by wide margins in both 2011 and 2012, a fact that should matter to elected officials in the region.
Last week, the state legislature attempted to undermine NCDOT and the governor’s own data-driven “apolitical” transportation legislation by severely capping state light rail funding to $500,000. Considering the state has provided nearly $400 million for two Charlotte light rail projects, and that DOLRT may avoid future state highway costs in the corridor, and that DOLRT performed well in DOT’s own data-driven analysis, officials should move quickly to restore the $138 million in light rail funding the DOLRT project successfully competed for and earned.
Jonathan Parker, a former Triangle Transit worker in Raleigh, is a senior planner with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.