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.

Read Paul Stam’s Letter (It’s a Different Kind of Common Sense.)

OK, Springsteen fans. Late yesterday Representative Paul Stam, Speaker of the NC House, sent a letter to every local elected official outlining the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act (SL 2016-3, or HB2) and how it corrects for the “big government overreach” of the Charlotte City Council.  Apparently his office has received a few phone calls asking for clarification on some questions related to the economy, Title IX funding, and veterans.  (If he has received inquiries about other things, such as equal protection, employment discrimination claims, and federal constitutional issues, he doesn’t let on.)

After ticking off the five provisions in the law, of which only one addresses public bathrooms, he neatly summarizes it:

The common sense law assures North Carolina residents, businesses and visitors that their reasonable expectation of privacy in public restrooms or changing facilities will be honored.

Oh, the irony.

You can read the letter here. And I suggest you read between the lines, too.  You will learn that:

  • HB2 enhances the economy because…Squirrel! Squirrel! Squirrel!
  • No school district, university or state has ever lost Title IX funding, because the US Department of Education is just a big bully.  And as you know, North Carolina stands up to bullies.
  • While SL 2016-3 might quite possibly but sort of unclearly discriminate against Veterans, there are more than two dozen other ways the state supports them. For example, did you know that G.S. 113-174.2(c)(6) grants a lifetime fishing license for resident disabled veterans? Besides, federal law prohibits discrimination against veterans, so it’s OK if the State didn’t think that part through. You’ll win in court.
  • Non-veterans that need employment protections, such as women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and seniors? Good luck with that, if you can find a way to get to court in the first place.

Stam’s letter is non-responsive to the specific questions he seeks to address, and it evades the many others we know he and his peers have received in the weeks since HB2 passed.  It is perhaps indicative of the pressure that state legislators are facing each time a company pulls up stakes, a law suit is filed, or a local government passes a resolution condemning the law. It is also indicative of the deep privilege of denial afforded to people in power who use the system simply to keep it.

I’m feeling more irony coming on. Because I think North Carolina does know how to stand up to bullies. Early signs:

  • Our statewide delegation isn’t having it. (Don’t let that 32-0 Senate vote fool you. Those who chose not to vote unfortunately register as a yes.) Senator Val Foushee walked out of the ramrod vote and Rep. Insko and Rep. Meyer voted loudly no.
  • Local governments are pushing back. Read about Carrboro’s resolution calling for repeal here, thanks to the leadership of Mayor Lydia Lavelle and Alderman Damon Seils. Orange County, Chapel Hill, Hillsborough and Durham also have their own resolutions, along with many others rippling through the state.
  • Citizens are taking initiative. Hooray to Fiona Mathews of Carrboro’s Bowbar, who worked with friends to make the No Bigots Served poster available to anyone who wants one. I think I’ll use it as my screen saver.
  • And the lawsuits are beginning to flow.

None of this is enough, of course, and the Boss could cancel a million times to nary a legislative blink.  But we have primary and general elections coming up this year and other organized and informal opportunities to show our strength as the true blue state we are. We have our work cut out for us.

And so does Paul Stam.





Carrboro Takes a Closer Look at Social Equity


Like many local government bodies, each year the Carrboro Board of Aldermen holds a day-long retreat to enable more concentrated discussion about one or more strategic issues. This year’s retreat was held on Sunday, February 28, in a sunny room at the Seymour Center in Chapel Hill, just past the pool tables downstairs. (Believe me, the pool tables were tempting.)

The topic, social equity and how to consider it in local decision-making, was mutually agreed in advance, and Alderwoman Michelle Johnson and I were tasked with setting an agenda, finding guest speakers, and, best of all, picking the caterer. (We chose Mediterranean Deli.) With skillful input from facilitator Andy Sachs of the Dispute Settlement Center, we agreed to the following objectives for our retreat:

  • Clarification of what equity can mean in the context of leadership and local government.
  • Understanding progress and disparity in Carrboro and Orange County, utilizing Triangle J COG’s Equitable Growth Profile recommendations as one comparison.
  • Appreciation for concrete tools that can be used at the department and municipal level to advance equity in operations and policy making.
  • Board priorities and next steps with regard to equity.
  • Identification of possible ways the Board can work even better together as it addresses the community’s challenging issues.

A Tall Order

Yes, those objectives were a tall order, but we all recognized that this first conversation would not be last. To get us started, we asked Aspen Romeyn of the Triangle J Council of Governments to provide us with some local level data to see where Carrboro and Orange County equity indicators stack up. You can see her excellent presentation here.

Some of the data is not surprising; some is eye opening. All point to the undeniable fact that people of color living in Orange County, no matter their economic or educational standing, are having a much harder time than white people of the same means. If you are a person of color and poor, you are poorer than your white peers. If you are a person of color struggling in the middle class, you’re losing even more ground than your struggling white peers. Race matters in some big ways in progressive Carrboro and Orange County, beyond the policing and educational disparities that are the focus of much of our collective equity conversations.

With data as a backdrop, Dr. James Svara of UNC’s School of Government offered up a framework for conducting a local government equity inventory that includes an analysis of:

  • Access and Distributional Equity
  • Procedural Fairness
  • Quality and Process Equity
  • Outcomes Across Population Groups

His discussion, as well as some auxiliary reading he provided before the retreat, offered concrete steps for evaluating our local government system and its contributions or roadblocks to social equity. Vetted by the Social Equity Panel of the National Academy of Public Administration, this framework and similar ones have been adapted and adopted by a few, but not many, local governments across the country. Perhaps the most notable is Seattle, which, with assistance from the Racial Equity Institute (REI) and its racial equity framework, developed an equity analysis to inform its long-term comprehensive plan.

My Takeaways

Ultimately it was a rich discussion in line with the retreat objectives. Everyone contributed positive ideas and valuable perspectives. Immediate next steps will include continued data review, various training opportunities for staff and the Board, and continued work on a number of relevant issues and policies that were already on our plate (like policing). Here are my personal takeaways as we work toward the longer-term:

  • Developing a shared language around equity is necessary if any governing body is to be effective and consistent in evaluating and implementing decisions toward equitable outcomes. But it’s also difficult to agree on that shared language. While every member of the Board of Aldermen would describe themselves as progressive, each of us brings to the table distinctive racial, ethnic and personal identities, life experiences, privilege, and practices in discourse that will make coming to agreement on any set of terms an interesting challenge. But getting past the difficulty is part of the process.
  • Assessment is key, starting with the ‘self.’ In the case of Town government, that means assessing personnel practices, service delivery, policy, operations and communications across departments, including the Board of Aldermen. It means we have to be mindful of the quality of system that good policy needs in order to succeed. Investing in data collection and review has to be part of the process. So is investing in people and their professional development.
  • We can’t act in a vacuum. The economic data is clear about that—the regional system needs to change, not just our slice of it. Happily, Aldermen Damon Seils and Sammy Slade, along with Planning Director Trish McGuire, attended a recent local government equity training sponsored by REI and report back good things. Chapel Hill, Hillsborough and Orange County also were represented there, among other Triangle counties and municipalities. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can make happen together thanks to opportunities like these.

Finally, while it may seem obvious, it’s worth repeating that no one in Carrboro or Orange County has a lock on the equity conversation, or a lock on what it means to be a progressive decision-maker in 2016. It’s hard to find a politician, advocate or activist in Orange County who can’t recount their defense or advancement of any number of progressive principles. I’ve certainly done that myself. But being progressive isn’t enough. We can’t blame a system that is continuously marginalizing an increasing number of people on external forces. The system, and all its racial bias, is us.

Every formal and informal leader in Orange County, no matter their long tenure or good track record or personal lens into identity, must own the widening disparities happening on their watch and take the risks needed to turn around those trends. We need humility (and sanity, Mr. Trump) now more than ever.

I know our Board of Aldermen is up to the task, despite our differences and oft-competing priorities. I’ll look forward to another update on our equity discussions and actions very soon.

Carrboro Supports Northside Initiative with $55,000 Grant

Very pleased that last night the Board of Aldermen approved a total of $57,500 in grant funding from the Town’s Affordable Housing Fund for two important non-profit efforts. $2,500 was committed to Rebuilding Together of the Triangle for its critical repair program. $55,000 was committed to Self-Help Credit Union to invest in land banking and critical repair strategies in the Carrboro portion of the Northside Initiative, a major collaboration between UNC-Chapel Hill’s real estate foundation, Self Help, the Town of Chapel Hill, and the Jackson Center.

This is a particularly significant action considering that between 2008 – 2015 the Town was only able to invest a total of $47,770 in affordable housing project support. Simply put, the Town’s “voluntary inclusionary housing” strategy has not generated meaningful support for the Affordable Housing Fund, and so until now, funding was quite limited. Last year, the Board approved an allocation to the Fund worth the equivalent of 1% on the property tax rate, or basically a penny for housing.  The grants approved last night would not have been possible without that roughly $200,000 budgetary commitment.

The funding we approved will 1) support the sale of at least two land bank homes in the Lloyd-Broad neighborhood of Carrboro to non-profit partners or modest-income homebuyers; 2) support the acquisition or predevelopment expenses related to up to five additional properties in the neighborhood; and 3) pay for critical repairs to at least four homes owned by limited income Carrboro seniors.

As Chair of the Board of Aldermen’s Affordable Housing Task Force, I’m grateful to the non-profit partners who will carry out this important work, and to the unanimous support of my colleagues for the decision. I look forward to seeing what else our non-profit partners will do this year to help Carrboro invest in and advance the Town’s affordable housing goals. A link to a brief article in Chapelboro is here.  Always happy to talk about this important issue, and all of its nuances, with folks who are interested!


Musical Debates!

Can’t thank Tom Arnel and WCOM 103.5FM enough for hosting Musical Debates each election year!  On Saturday, September 26th, after a very interesting School Equity forum which I’ll write about later, I had the pleasure of bantering with Alderwoman Michelle Johnson about the importance of voting, development strategies and decision-making in Carrboro and Chapel Hill, the creative economy, the origins of the word Cackalack, and other topics.  If you have an hour to spare while washing dishes or stalled in traffic on 15-501, tune in.  You’ll hear some great songs by (in no particular order):

  • Rhiannon Giddensmusic bars
  • Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
  • John Legend
  • Nina Simone
  • Jonathan Byrd
  • Michael Frante
  • The Meters
  • Gil Scott Heron
  • Rayland Baxter
  • Shirley Horn

I’m leaving the song names and guest DJ’s name off the list to encourage you to listen! It’s fun. But more fun it you start at 1:18.  Enjoy!