By Stephanie Lamm
Though the 17.1-mile Durham-Orange Light Rail is more than 10 years and $1 billion from completion, some residents have already lost faith in the project.
“A light rail car is going to weigh more than a U.S. Army tank,” said Alex Cabanes, who lives in Downing Creek. “And they want two of these running 150 times a day. If someone said 300 tanks are rolling in front of my lawn every day, that might be a problem for me.”
Cabanes and others with concerns about the project have until Oct. 12 to file a formal comment to GoTriangle. GoTriangle will address substantive comments in its final Environmental Impact Report.
GoTriangle projects the Research Triangle’s population will grow by 80 percent between 2010 and 2040, creating high traffic intensity along the Durham-Orange County corridor.
“We can’t keep expanding the roads. This line would increase travel in places where roads can’t be widened,” said Patrick McDonough, the manager of planning and transit-oriented development for GoTriangle.
Combined, Triangle Transit Authority, Durham Area Transit Authority, Chapel Hill Transit and Duke Transit carry 71,300 passengers on average weekdays. According to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement released Aug. 21, the buses systems servicing Durham and Chapel Hill are near maximum capacity.
“Durham and Chapel Hill punch above their weight in transit use,” McDonough said. “Bus use here is much different from in Raleigh or Cary.”
GoTriangle expects 23,000 daily riders on the light rail by 2035.
Eight new park-and-ride stations, with space to 5,000 vehicles, will be added around the light rail stations.
The vast majority passengers will walk, bike or bus to the 17 stations. Before the project is completed, GoTriangle will expand bus service to connect current routes to the rail system.
Using a projection of 2040 travel intensity, the light rail links the five areas that may see over 100 trips per acre.
The rail does not cross into the Research Triangle Park or Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
Orange County resident Bonnie Hauser is one of many people who suggested the route should to RTP and RDU.
“In the 1990s when they started planning this, the current route was probably very important, but now people need to get to Chatham Park, Mebane, RTP,” Hauser said. “Why would we want to serve just one university corridor when most people need to go to a broader area?”
McDonough said people have suggested the line go through these locations, but they are not high-traffic areas.
In total, the rail will cost up to $1.6 billion. The project will compete with other transportation projects around the country to secure a piece of the federal transportation budget. Federal funding will cover about half of the project’s initial costs, with the other half coming from state and local governments.
In 2012, voters agreed to a local sales tax of .05 percent to help pay for the light rail.
However, Hauser said GoTriangle’s proposal has fallen short of the original project that residents approved in 2012.
What was first pitched as a 34-minute ride from Chapel Hill to Durham turned into a more than 40-minute ride after several route changes.
The Durham-Orange Light Rail was initially going to connect to a Wake County rail system built in tandem. Wake County recently backed out of the project, as officials chose to improve and expand their bus and diesel rapid rail systems instead.
Hauser and Cabanes think Durham and Orange Counties should follow suit.
“Bus Rapid Transit is taking all the advantages of the Light Rail except instead of using steel rails they are using asphalt,” Cabanes said. “That’s important becuase instead of requiring a 50-foot wide path, bus lanes are just 12 feet wide. You can fit four bus lanes in one light rail track. If you look at the 23,000 boardings they are projecting in 2035, that’ll be 622 passengers per hour on the light rail. But if we use the bus system, the same space can accommodate almost 900 passengers per hour.”
Erik Landfried, transit service planning supervisor for GoTriangle, pointed out there is limited space for buses.
“When people say, ‘Why can’t we just do this with BRT,’ it’s because you can’t throw that many more buses at this problem because we can’t get them in or out,” Landfried said.
A typical transit bus can carry 110 people with one operator, while a light rail can carry 540 people with one operator. This translates into a lower cost per passenger operating cost.
Other residents have concerns about the environmental consequences.
Under the National Environmental Policy Act, certain agencies must file an EIS if a project could have significant impact on the environment.
The initial Meadowmont Lane route was redrawn to avoid park land in the corridor. The preferred route will now run through Woodmont near Cabanes’ residence.
Cabanes said he is worried about the impact the rail might have on his property value.
Natalie Murdock, public involvement manager for GoTriangle, said she has spoken to real estate agents who are excited about the light rail.
“You’re going to have faster travel times, which will attract people from the universities to developing areas outside the city centers,” Murdock said.
However, not everyone sees this as a benefit.
“The route through Downing Creek is now allowing for a new development of $700,000 townhouses, which nobody in Downing right now could afford,” Hauser said. “All these communities were unsuspecting of the impacts it would have on them.”
McDonough said he hopes the public comment period will clear up misconceptions about the project.
“I know it may seem like we’re not listening because we won’t be able to respond to all comments right away,” he said. “But everything is documented and comments of substance will be addressed.”
By Stephanie Lamm