Durham residents got to have their say on plans for expanded regional rail and bus service at a Triangle Transit presentation Wednesday afternoon.
The centerpiece of the workshop — one of seven being held in Durham, Orange and Wake counties in the third and final round of public meetings before detailed transit recommendations are scheduled to be presented this summer — was unquestionably a set of three separate railroad proposals. Triangle Transit and its partners have laid out a set of routes and stations, none of them final, that would enable travelers to move around the region without cars.
Both the Durham-Orange and the Wake train systems, or “corridors” as the planners call them, would run on newly installed light rail tracks and run from morning till night. The Durham-Wake system would feature commuter trains running on existing freight lines. The latter service is geared to moving 9-to-5ers between Durham, Research Triangle Park, Cary, N.C. State, downtown Raleigh and even Johnston County.
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Plenty of information was laid out on poster boards and tables Wednesday. Here’s a quick sketch of the bottom line:
* The Durham-Orange corridor (detailed map; other info here) would run 17 miles from UNC hospitals to Durham’s Alston Avenue, feature 17 stations, take 34 minutes to travel end to end, and cost about $1.4 billion to construct in 2010 money ($82 million per mile). It would carry 10,000 to 12,000 riders a day in 2035 and cost $14.3 million annually to operate (in 2010 dollars).
* The Durham-Wake corridor (detailed map; other info here) would run 37 miles between Duke hospitals and Greenfield at the Wake-Johnston line, feature 12 stations, take 51 minutes to traverse, and cost $629 million to build ($17 million per mile). It would carry 6,500 to 7,500 riders daily and cost $10.9 million to operate.
* The Wake corridor (detailed map; other info here) would run 18 miles from Cary to downtown Raleigh to the Triangle Town Center in North Raleigh, feature 20 stations, take 34 to 41 minutes to traverse, and cost from $1.4 billion to $1.6 billion to construct ($78 million to $89 million per mile). It would carry 14,000 to 15,000 riders daily and cost $15.5 million to operate.
The Durham-Wake cost is significantly lower than its counterparts’ because that system would mainly use existing freight tracks. That’s a big difference from the train proposal that was scrapped in 2006, which would have required new light rail tracks to be laid between Durham and Raleigh.
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Planners also envision an expanded network of bus service as a complement to rail. In the far Western Triangle, service would be expanded or beefed up to link Pittsboro, Carrboro, Hillsborough and Chapel Hill to proposed rail stations. Central, Northern and Northeastern Durham County would also get similar treatment along with Creedmoor in Granville County and several spots in Wake and Franklin counties.
Whether the rail programs are implemented or not, buses will provide key Triangle travel links. The transit connection to Raleigh-Durham International Airport would feature buses shuttling among one of the Durham-Wake rail stations in RTP, a proposed new consolidated airport rental car center and the airport proper. (A light rail connection could conceivably be built later on.) Similarly, the RBC Center would be served by buses from the Fairgrounds station.
If leaders decide against building the Durham-Orange light rail system, bus rapid transit could be an option. It would run in separate lanes from regular car traffic on routes parallel to the proposed tracks at a cost of $765 million to $918 million.
Even if everything planned comes to fruition, the rail network would have clear limits. For instance, as is currently the case, Chapel Hill residents riding transit to Cary or Raleigh would almost certainly be advised to take buses.
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The proposed systems carry hefty price tags. Moreover, the major funding sources for these systems is in significant doubt. Wake won’t hold its vote before 2012, and The Independent Weekly reported this week that the Durham and Orange county commissions prefer to have their votes coincide with Wake.
Whenever the issue hits the ballot, a majority of voters will be required to support the tax in order for railroad and bus revenue to begin flowing into local government coffers. The Indy noted that Durham and Orange’s combined transit sales taxes are expected to rake in $22 million annually, as compared to the $50 million Wake could pull.
Assuming that at least two counties pass the tax, the first new rail service could come online as soon as five to seven years from that point. Expanded bus service would start up sooner.
But why would new rail service — or bus service, for that matter — be necessary in the first place? The first and arguably best answer to that question, transit proponents say, is population growth. As we noted recently, the Triangle’s 2035 population is projected to be 2.6 million, twice the number of 2005 residents.
Mike Shiflett, the president of a medical equipment business and a co-founder of Durham-Orange Friends of Transit (DO Transit), has additional pro-transit arguments. Many of them center around development patterns.
“I’ve been around long enough to see the way we’ve grown can’t continue,” he said. “We can’t continue to take farmland and create [residential] developments.”
The alternative to suburban sprawl, Shiflett believes, goes hand in hand with transit: denser urban development in which residents can meet their travel needs without automobiles.
“Until we get to that point where we have the density where people live where we work, we need to have an option for them to move around,” he said.
Interstate 40 and the Durham Freeway are at capacity, Shiflett argued. “We’ve widened the roads just as much as we can without building new bridges,” he said. “That gets to be even more expensive” than mass transit.
He acknowledged the hefty cost of new rail and bus service. “But just think what other options you’d have.”
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Back to development. Planners believe that transit stations large and small can be miniature development hubs, sprouting not just bus terminals and rail tracks but also mixed-use buildings. In other words, these stations would be within easy walking distance of day care centers, dry cleaners and grocers so commuters could go to work and take care of all their errands without starting up their cars.
“It’s a common-sense approach,” said Cynthia Van Der Wiele, an engineer and Chatham County’s former head of sustainable communities development. She was collecting signatures on a pro-transit petition along with Shiflett.
Planners intend to consult with neighborhood groups near proposed stations to find out just what services residents want to get along with bus and rail links. That information, along with comments collected during this round of public meetings, will help inform the detailed final recommendation due out this summer.
DO Transit representatives weren’t the only bus and rail enthusiasts present Wednesday, it should be noted.
John Kent biked and bused to the downtown Durham event from his Chatham County home (travel time: 90 minutes). The slender 65-year-old retired city and regional planner was one of at least two residents who questioned the environmental impact of some of the proposed routes, but in general he supports the expansion of transit.
Recently, he spent 12 hours checking out Raleigh and Cary pedestrian bridges. His ride of choice: 10 different buses.
“Big adventure, small carbon footprint,” he said proudly.
Mass transit can be better for air quality than private automobiles, Kent noted.
And he added: “Gas prices being what they are, it’s a special layer of frosting on the cake not to have to pay” them.
Natasha Kanagat, a 29-year-old public health consultant, echoed Kent.
“I’m a fan of public transit from an environmental perspective and from a cost-efficient perspective,” said Kanagat, a Bombay, India, native who praised that mega-city’s public transportation. “I’m all for it.”
Kanagat commutes by bus to a Chapel Hill office from Southwest Durham. The Durham-Orange plan excited her because a proposed Martin Luther King station would be a short walk from her home.
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Wednesday’s transit presentation took place on the top floor of the Durham Station Transportation Center. So what did people waiting for buses in the downstairs lobby think?
Kenyatta Brewer, 42, is a dog groomer who lives in South Durham and works in North Durham. While waiting at Durham Station for a bus connection on his 35-minute trip home Wednesday afternoon, he examined the transit proposal.
“I love it,” Brewer said. “I love the ideas that they have, and I’m looking forward to what lies ahead in the future.”
Although tax referenda often face stiff opposition in North Carolina, Brewer said he would support the transit levy. “It’s worth them doing whatever they have to do to get it done,” he stated. “I think it’s great.”
Bus rider Elton Faulk is a 25-year-old fund-raiser and self-defense teacher could be seen surfing the Internet on a computer in the lobby Wednesday. A former soldier, he said his experience traveling Europe had set him up for disappointment upon returning to the States.
“Coming back here was a bit of a step down,” he said. “I’m used to being able to hop on a train or bus and get anywhere.”
Any improvement to transit, Faulk said before walking upstairs to look at rail and bus proposals, would be greatly welcome.