Tracking Light Rail: Some Perspective on the Decision Ahead

low_income_minority_pop_dolrtI’ve had some interesting conversations (and some alarming ones) about the planned Durham-Orange light rail project. As you may know, GoTriangle recently announced a funding setback caused by the NC General Assembly’s ill-reasoned, regressive 10% cap on funding such projects. Current estimates suggest the shortfall will require Orange County to contribute an additional $40 million over 10 years for  construction.

Opponents say the project cost is too high. Advocates point to the opportunity cost. Pay now or pay later, they say.

Unfortunately there has been incomplete and misleading information circulating as the Orange County Board of Commissioners considers the funding challenge.  I tackle three topics in particular here, recognizing that not everyone will agree with my take:

  • Orange County is not being asked to commit to more local funding…yet.

As noted in this editorial signed by me and several colleagues, Durham and Orange counties are being asked to provide non-binding letters of intent to work with our partners to identify funding for the shortfall.

This letter would allow GoTriangle to submit an application to move into the next phase of the lengthy federal New Starts program process. The letter would not require the county to guarantee new funding for the project.

Instead, in April, 2017, the Board of Commissioners will receive and analyze updated cost and revenue assumptions from GoTriangle. They will have until June, 2018, to make a formal decision about committing new local funds or withdrawing from the federal process altogether.  (Subbing in a “Plan B” is not possible in this process.)

Long range planning requires sustained commitment, and backing out too early in a process can cost more in the long run than the cost of patient due diligence.

Like many of my elected peers and fellow Orange County taxpayers, I worry about how the County can shoulder an increasing proportion of the project, especially in a time of political and economic uncertainty. But I’m not willing to cede the project without seeing that critical financial data in April, and without considering every realistic option. We are not at a point of no return, so let’s get the best information we can and make an informed decision, not a panicked one.

  • Improved bus service and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) alone will not solve our problems faster, more cheaply, or more efficiently than light rail. But they are necessary components of a robust, comprehensive transit system.  

As one official has put it, “We’re trying to build a better transit system, not just light rail.”  That’s the right way to look at it.

Without improved bus service across the two counties, light rail won’t be effective. That’s why the current plan calls for more and more rapid bus service, and why proceeds from the half-cent transit tax already are fueling needed changes.  In Chapel Hill and Carrboro, improvements will include BRT from Eubanks Road to UNC Hospitals and on to Southern Village, as well as more accommodating service on many other routes that feed into the light rail system.

Opponents of light rail have thrown around a lot of cost information that lacks a comprehensive, long range perspective.  For example, in a vacuum, comparing building costs “per mile” might lead one to believe that Bus Rapid Transit is “cheaper and more flexible.” But it’s not.

In the Triangle, growth rates in traffic volume has far outpaced highway project estimates. Think I-540, “Fortify 40,” and all those traffic jams from Southpoint to Mebane. If you’ve ever been sandwiched between two GoTriangle buses on Highway 54 at rush hour, you know what irony feels like.

I like buses, but they only go so far in reducing highway congestion, particularly in a corridor that does not have the capacity (or political will) for dedicated lanes that ensure they don’t get stuck in traffic. That’s the case with this project.

Here’s the most interesting statistic to me.  At full capacity, a three-car light rail train can carry 540 people using just one operator.  Five standard busses and five operators would be needed to carry similar volume. People using the train would get to their destination faster, a huge incentive for potential riders.  Meanwhile, ongoing maintenance, fuel, management and replacement costs are higher for BRT:  more moving parts require more people to keep them going.

Ultimately, light rail achieves greater economies of scale, transit volume, efficiency, and timing in a way that better supports our County’s long-range goals.  (See the 2012 rigorous, required Alternatives Analysis for additional information.)

  • Wealthy developers are not the only people that will benefit from the light rail project.

Social equity is a big concern whenever large amounts of public investment are in play (and private investment, too, no thanks to you, Mr. Trump.)  Go Triangle has estimated that 53,000 residents, 25,800 households, and an employment base of 119,100 workers will be served by the light rail project by 2040.  An estimated 13,000 people who are transit dependent (ie: no access to cars) already live within a half mile of the proposed stations, as well as more than 2,600 people who speak English as a second language.

Those statistics speak to the broad appeal and access of the planned light rail route, as does the picture above, which illustrates proximity to low-income census tracts and communities of color. If connecting bus routes were added, we’d see even more. Turns out that while roughly 25% of households in Durham and Orange counties are low-income, 43% of the population that lives along the light rail route is low-income. (And they don’t “all live in Durham,” y’all.) That’s pretty compelling.

Here are some other ways that the project will contribute to social equity (this list is hardly exhaustive):

  • With the addition of a station at NC Central University—which is the result of public input–the project affirms the importance of this HBCU to aspiring and current college students; offers parity of access with UNC and Duke; and opens up opportunities for academic, research, entrepreneurial, and community partnerships like never before.
  • As noted above, the plan improves bus service in both counties, even for those who never plan to use light rail. This tends to benefit people who have the least resources. In Chapel Hill and Carrboro bus service is free, but in all cases, bus transit is cheaper on average than owning a car. In fact, car dependence can eat up to 25% of a family’s income, including car payments, insurance, gas, and maintenance.
  • It opens up access to living wage jobs in both counties that some people can’t reasonably access by transit now. Faster trips mean the potential pie gets bigger for workers, which is really important for those competing for higher wages or better quality jobs.
  • Dedicated affordable housing along the corridor is in the planning stages—both rental and homeownership (although Durham is ahead of the game here.)

If local government gets criticized more for any one thing it is the lack of long-range planning, yet when long range planning actually happens, some people find it hard to stomach. So it goes with light rail. I’m looking forward to hearing the discussion, debate and decision of the Orange County commissioners, whom I respect for their diverse opinions and frames of reference. I hope they’ll agree to see the process through to the next benchmark. It’s a low-risk proposition to do so.