THE FUTURE OF LIGHT RAIL FOR DURHAM - CHAPEL HILL: Q&A WITH PATRICK MCDONOUGH

Charlotte has already received nation-wide attention for its innovative light rail, now Chapel Hill and Durham are laying the groundwork for a light rail system of their own. As the "fly through" video above shows, the route would run between downtown Chapel Hill/UNC hospitals through downtown Durham to NC Central University, offering a projected journey time of 35 to 36 minutes. Interested in finding out more about the progress of this scheme, we reached out to Patrick McDonough, Manager of Planning and Transit-Oriented Development for Triangle Transit to learn more.

Why light rail? What are the advantages over other forms of mass transit?

Light rail has several advantages, one of the most important being its passenger capacity over even the large, articulated buses you see in Chapel Hill.  Those rounded-front, bendy buses you see running up and down MLK Blvd and out of the Friday Center Park and Ride can carry approximately 110 people fully loaded.  A 3-car light rail train can carry 540 people.  However, it takes one person to drive the light rail train and five bus drivers to provide the same capacity even with the largest transit buses in North Carolina. In the long term, the operating costs of paying 1 person instead of 5 for that capacity provide a lower operating cost per passenger for light rail.
 
How was the project received in your recent community meetings?
 
The public is engaged and we've had a lot of interest in all facets of the project.  While there are questions about individual segments of the line and where it will cross individual roads or certain environmental features of the community, the majority of comments from the public seem to reflect excitement about the project, and a desire to build the best light rail line that we can in Durham and Orange counties.
 
Light rail, being steel wheel on rails, also has a smoother ride quality than buses, and with electric-powered trains, it has more powerful acceleration than buses. Finally, around the USA, the experience of the development community is that light rail has a better track record at focusing growth and economic development within metropolitan areas.

What's the current status of the project?

As of December 20th, 2013, Triangle Transit has requested that the Federal Transit Administration move the Durham-Orange Light Rail corridor into the “Project Development” phase for these types of transit investments.  Assuming we are approved in Project Development, this will make any expenditures on the project going forward eligible for up to 50% Federal reimbursement.  Project Development also signifies the beginning of a two-year period in which we expect evaluation of all potential environmental impacts of the project to be completed.
 
When can we start riding these trains?

 
Our current target date is 2026.  If we can finish sooner, we will, but we believe 2026 is the most realistic date as we survey our work ahead.  Our first step, taking place in the next 24 months, is completing preliminary engineering and an environmental impact statement (EIS).  The public will likely get a look at the draft version of the EIS in the winter of 2014-2015.  In early 2016, we would then move into detailed engineering and final design.  Right-of-way acquisition and utility relocation would occur closer to 2019/2020, and we would move into construction in the early 2020s, and open in 2026. 
 
Density is usually a major concern regarding viability of transit infrastructure. Do you foresee increased density as light rail moves forward?
 
Yes, and there is strong evidence that there is a market for denser development in station areas even today, with light rail still about a decade away.  The Ninth Street area in Durham has seen significant development activity since the completion of their Compact Neighborhood District regulations, and there are multiple projects in downtown Durham under construction within walking distance of the Downtown Durham light rail station.  Chapel Hill also has projects like East 54 that have been completed in recent years, and others on the way such as the Glen Lennox redevelopment plan.  Durham and Chapel Hill staff project that another 56,000 residents will move into the corridor by 2035, at the same time the corridor adds 81,000 jobs in the same stretch.  The more of this growth can be accommodated close to the light rail stations, the more manageable the impacts will be on our transportation system and our environment.
 
Does the fact voters approved a sales tax increase to fund this project suggest broad support for transit in the area?

Other communities have approved tax increases for transit by narrow margins, but in both Durham and Orange counties, the transit vote achieved a victory margin of 18 to 20 percent.  We think that is reasonable evidence that there is a strong community consensus for investing in transit in Durham and Orange counties.
 
How does this scheme fit in with the development of other transit/transportation strategies in the Triangle? 

The Durham-Orange Light Rail line is being designed in a way that will make it compatible with any future projects that may emerge in Wake County, such as a potential commuter rail line between Durham and RTP, Morrisville, Cary, Raleigh, and Garner.  Wake County communities are working on a few different initiatives that may ultimately coalesce well into a consensus on what transit looks like for them.  Raleigh is exploring a series of corridors within the city that may be suitable for enhanced bus service or streetcars.  Their metropolitan planning organization is conducting a Transit Systems Plan, and the Regional Transportation Alliance is bringing in a series of speakers to discuss Bus Rapid Transit.  As these various initiatives bear fruit, the consensus on next steps for transit in Wake County is likely to come into focus.  Triangle Transit is looking forward to being a partner in those efforts.

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