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Back to the future: Regional transit planners show Durhamites the future of travel

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. 



Airport connector? Maybe I missed it but sure would be nice to take "convenient" mass transit to the airport.

The Future Is Now

Sooooo, the future looks pretty much like today. Expensive light rail that will never be built. Woo. Solving 21st century problems with the best of 19th century technology.


If you've ever used light rail in cities that have systems (Portland, LA, euro cities, even charlotte's 1 line) you'll realize they aren't outdated "19th century" systems..they actually work quite well.

Will Wilson

I'm all for light rail, and agree with Mike's comments, but some of the stops between Durham and Chapel Hill (Leigh Village/Gateway/Patterson) sit right on the edge of important streams feeding into Jordan Lake. We need to locate LRT stops where we want high densities, or large parking lots; I'd argue for different placements of those stops. Why not north along 15-501?


Actually, the future probably *will* look quite a bit different from today. Even if we don't decide to invest in transit infrastructure, population will grow and gas prices will continue increase to the point where the car-culture we have now will be unsustainable. Its already starting, the cheap oil party is over. The longer we avoid investment in new transit infrastructure the costlier it will be in the long run. If we had started doing this 20 or 30 years ago, we might not be facing such hard choices today.

Andrew Edmonds

Another area ripe for dense, transit-centered development is the Rockwood neighborhood between Foster's and Thai Cafe.

In 20 years I can see a lot of multistory condos lining that portion of Business 15/501 -- I'd love to see a spur trolley line run down the median to the proposed South Square station.


Light rail will NOT reduce traffic and pollution on our roadways, simply because homes and new business built right along the rail path will not trigger existing suburban homes and business to just "disappear". Secondly, not everyone who lives along a rail corridor will simply give up their cars. Population growth will continue to rise in the Triangle. There will be no mass exodus from the suburbs to expensive rail line condos to reduce the number of cars on the road, and it is highly likely all roads will continue to get more congested with light rail. The conservation of matter is just a law of physics. Even if light rail is built out, there will be a critical mass of adjacent development limited by the cost of land that will ultimately only be satisfied by further suburban growth.

Just something to think about before we pour billions of dollars into a mass transit system that might not work as well in a multi-centric metro area versus a place like Charlotte where light rail works as well as can be expected given its hub and spoke layout, and its complementary relationship with suburbs and outlying cities like Matthews and Monroe.

Will Wilson

GL: LRT systems really won't be functional for a decade or more, so the emphasis needs to be planning for the future. What do we want/need the triangle to look like 50 years from now, once fossil fuels are out of the picture?


And still no connection to the airport. It's incredible. This is the only airport of this size I know that has ZERO public transit options.

The line from Durham to Ch. Hill seems to me the one that would get more use, particularity because the rides would be short, covers most of central and south Durham and 15 501 is unbearable.

Matt Dudek

@Cormoran TTA goes to and from the airport. I've used it, and it works. It's not ideal, but that's because we've chosen to live in such a sprawling area with a low population density. There are very few cost effective transit options because of ridership levels.

I live near downtown Durham though, and this works well for me. Give it a shot next time.


I´m in Madrid right now and got to use its extensive metro, light rail, bus and light metro systems. Light metro is basically a tram and an efficient and less expensive transportation system worth checking out. Light metro can be used as an urban and suburban system. Check it out here,


A light rail from downtown Durham to CH might make sense to start off with. There are a lot of commuters who live in one town and work in another (Duke & UNC). Plus, there is ample shopping along 15-501 to do daily errands, and room for dense mid-rise housing to sprout up next to the rail line.

Going from Durham to Raleigh through RTP and Cary is not likely to succeed because of low density, and the park-like campus of RTP just requires too many buses to circulate from one of the stations. The airport isn't going to give up its lucrative parking fees and taxi service for a rail head. A short bus trip from the planned Davis Park station could work. Distance- and time-wise, the current planned route would add too much of a delay getting to the airport, especially from CH and N Raleigh, unless the rail lines were two-way in a Figure 8 configuration connecting the four major towns and crossing between the airport and RTP.

Rob Gillespie

I agree on our analysis of a Durham-Wake connection.

The way things are going, I really think we need to write off Wake's ability to pass the transit tax. We should instead focus on what Durham and Orange can do together. I just don't think the Wake County voting base will see a benefit in transit. There's almost 900,000 residents in that county, and less than half live in Raleigh proper. Unless all the suburbs and exurbs see a benefit, they're not going to vote for the tax.


The most important thing that we need to do is build a SYSTEM that serves the needs of all modes of transportation. Most of the focus in the past has been on cars...we CAN NOT pave our way out of congestion. I'm not sure Wake County will get the message in time.

While I wish we could have a light rail system yesterday, I think it is important to continue moving forward in a calculated manner. I hope our region (multi-core) will be a model for others to follow.


The major issue in my mind is whether this plan still wipes out Sam's Quik Shop?


Thanks Matt I didn't know that TTA had that service, it seems I could use it if did not have any other option. It's not a direct route though and seems not very convenient but I'm glad to know there is at least a minimal bus service.


Great comments and discussion. The thought that I'd like to add is that the real power of rail is its ability to drive land use and development. Take one look at what it did for real estate development in Charlotte. South Blvd was a perfect example of failed urban sprawl. Within just a few years, the density of development around the station stops down South Blvd is amazing.

Certainly rail won't eliminated the sprawl that we've already promoted in our multi core region but a commitment to it even in the next decade will begin to drive development and redevelopment of real estate along the route. That was doubling the population won't double the sprawl or the car focused patterns that now exist. Just imagine if the $2.6 Billion spent on I-540 had been spent on a rail line. just how much less sprawl would be we seeing in North Raleigh?

One other point needs to be added about the airport connection. Just because a connection to the airport is not part of TTA's plan does not mean that it won't happen. If viable commuter rail runs through the RTP between Durham and Raleigh, I am confident that a connection to that line will be developed. There a lots of players who'd have an interest in making that happen.

The key is for our region to get started with some rail transit and to have a plan to deliver the fuller vision over time. It certainly looks as though Wake county won't be the leading piece of this progressive effort. Anybody surprised?

If you want to see this happen, a) push for a referendum on the 1/2 cents sales tax in the fall in Durham and Orange, and b) lets support the yes side of that vote. This project is likely to be funded by State and Federal money which won't come unless the local piece is already in place.


Also, the mention of the Rockwood area and the concerns about Jordan water issues as the corridor moves from Chapel Hill to Durham reminded me to give you all the reference to the following sight:

It contains not only the meeting information but also a ton of information about corridors and station location and airport connectivity.

Bottom-line is that knitting together small pockets of urban living and behavior, a la Rockwood, is not really the point of designing a light rail transit system. Ridership will only pay for a small portion of the operating expenses. Remember these are 50-100 year investments. Over that much longer time horizon, these lines will define growth for this area.


i want to think there is some clever analysis offered, but i can't help think that the DOT and all the people making money selling real estate along highways and repaving roads every 5 to 10 years are getting a good laugh at the idea that rails are a 25 to 100 year plan. they may change their minds when you have to drill through a 100 feet of dead american soldiers to get the oil.

how many DOT workers and at what level of managerial expertise does it take to have a train go 25 miles an hour at quarter mile increments in a straight line repetitively?

analysis only tells us what we want to know, Ahmed Chalabi anyone?

Michael Bacon

The proposed airport link is exactly what you get at most European airports -- a regular shuttle to a nearby train station. That's how it works at Gatwick, at Orly, and at de Gaulle.

The Durham-Wake link is finally sized appropriately, with commuter rail instead of light rail. I don't see it in the materials, but in all likelihood this would be a less frequent service than the light rail links -- I've heard 12-18 trains a day both ways tossed around.

Two high-frequency lines linked by a low frequency line. That's about exactly right, except that I'd also expect the CRT line to go to Hillsborough, Efland, and Mebane someday.


Michael - slight correction: the RER actually has two train stations at CDG on a line that goes directly to the center of Paris, so there's no need for a shuttle there. Also, Orly now has OrlyVal (which is still a technically a shuttle, but it's an automated train) that connects the terminal stations to the Antony RER station.

I agree, though, that bus shuttles between RDU and a light rail station make a lot of sense for our area, at least to start. Airport connections to rail transit seem to problematic in many places. I've lived in three different larger metro areas which were served by some combination of light rail/commuter rail (Atlanta, Los Angeles, and San Diego), only one of those (Atlanta) had train service directly to the airport.


I find it hard to believe that any municipality that is starting light rail from scratch would not put stops within walking distance of their major passenger destinations(RDU,RBC,fairgrounds,university campuses, hospitals). The fact that this plan does not have it spells doom for passing the taxes to pay for it.

Why is this to be funded by a sales tax rather than a gasoline tax? The latter would seem to be a better motivator to use mass transit.


nice. maybe because they don't want it?

i'm sure they've carefully cited other reasons. doesn't change your key points.


ok. i just zoomed on the durham chapel hill link. it DOES go to unc/hospital. it is also retarded. along I40 for no reason. the through semi rural area to Meadowmont, i'm sure to kiss the butt of Roger Perry et. al.

of course, the 54 corridor will be as tragic as the 15-501 traffic light drag race soon enough. the joke i guess is that this path splits the difference and solves neither problem.

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