The General Assembly has again blocked the light-rail system between Durham and Chapel Hill by placing a 10 percent cap on state investments and a two- to three-year wait for the project. Like the more obvious $500,000 cap in 2015, lawmakers accomplished the same thing: They made the project financially unfeasible.
Rather than wait for a different response from the same policymakers, let’s switch tracks from light rail to a system of rapid buses that run on dedicated lanes in the proposed corridors. It’s more affordable and therefore doable, flexible and equitable.
Durham and Orange county voters, elected officials and the regional GoTriangle transit agency are committed to public transportation to reduce traffic and foster economic growth. Light rail is the coolest way to realize that with $1.5 billion of investments and slick tech trains. The problem is that the coolest is the most expensive and is not flexible in serving diverse and evolving needs. Our common goal is to provide the best transportation system we can afford to benefit the best public outcomes. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) accomplishes that goal.
Switching technologies from rail to buses uses the existing planning and investments already made in anticipation of light rail. The difference is that buses, not trains, will carry people along dedicated transportation corridors and stop in new stations. The high hurdles already met through years of planning and regulatory approval will not be lost as the change to buses requires addendums, not a complete do-over. Dedicated bus lanes can be acquired and built in stages, where rail lines have to be completed from start to finish to make the first trip. Buses can change routes over time as population and real estate demands change, while trains can’t. BRT will qualify for federal and state dollars and fit within county budgets, making the project possible.
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Ten thousand households are without cars in Durham County alone, needing public transportation to reach where they live, work, shop, worship and play. Diverse, healthy neighborhoods are best served by flexible transportation that reaches into communities across the county. Light rail concentrates public and private investment, creating greater economic inequities in the built environment. Because you can’t drive a bus on a railroad track, riders must transfer from bus to rail to bus to reach their destinations. BRT could seamlessly integrate with expanded bus lines, enhancing convenience and promoting equity and opportunity.
Whether you agree or disagree with the General Assembly’s vote, it was “No!” to light rail. Instead of losing time, money and momentum waiting for a different answer, let’s get busy building BRT.
Peter Skillern of Durham is executive director of Reinvestment Partners, an advocacy and community development agency.