It will be years, if ever, before a Triangle Transit train pulls into any station in Durham, Orange or Wake counties. But a plan for investing more than $2 billion in regional rail and bus transit is about to pull out of the station.
The Durham County mass transportation investment plan could be adopted as soon as this month by leaders of three key groups: the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, which oversees transportation strategies; Triangle Transit, which operates DATA bus service in Durham as well as regional bus service, and which would likely operate any new rail system; and the Board of County Commissioners.
The first two organizations will both consider the plan on June 22; county commissioners will hold public hearings on the plan itself and on a referendum for a half-cent sales tax on June 13. Commission action on either or both issues may come on June 27.
Durham’s share of the plan would amount to about $1.4 billion. A quarter of the project revenue is expected to come from the government of North Carolina, half would likely come from the federal government, and the remainder would be paid by a combination of sources including the half-cent sales tax, vehicle registration increases of $10 and a rental car tax.
The new levy would not apply to housing, food, medical, utility or gasoline purchases, thus somewhat blunting the regressive nature of the sales tax.
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What would Durham get for its money? About 10 members of the public got some answers to that question Wednesday afternoon at the Holton Career and Resource Center, the site of the second in a series of five meetings being held in Durham and Orange counties.
The blueprint set forth by the planning organization includes a commuter rail line from West Durham to Raleigh and points east, with service concentrated during morning and evening rush hours.
This 37-mile line would use existing North Carolina right of way and would cost $645 overall ($300 for Durham construction). Trains would average 44 miles per hour and could travel end to end in 51 minutes. Operations could commence in 2018.
There would also be a light rail line with as many as six trains an hour linking the UNC and Duke hospital systems, downtown Durham and Alston Avenue in East Durham, with many stops in between. This 17-mile line would use the existing rail corridor from Duke to Alston Avenue; south and west of that, tracks would mainly be laid on land that has already been reserved for transit.
Light rail construction would cost $1.4 billion, with more than $1 billion to be spent in Durham. Trains would run about 30 mph and could span the system in 34 minutes. The service could begin as soon as 2025.
Less flashy, but perhaps even more important, would be the addition of 50,000 hours of bus service between 2012 and 2015. More than 20,000 hours would be added between 2015 and 2035. The cost to Durham would be $47 million.
New or extended routes would link downtown Durham to Rougemont, Durham Regional Hospital, Duke, North Carolina Central, Durham Technical Community College, Brier Creek, Research Triangle Park, the Streets at Southpoint mall, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Hillsborough and Mebane. Bus ridership would likely exceed train ridership for years after the railroads begin running.
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So how would the public benefit from all this? According to backers, this plan would get more people out of cars and into mass transit. That could improve air quality and reduce traffic over a 25-year period in which the Triangle’s population is expected to double.
Workers and employers would get transportation under the plan, supporters argue. And many of the benefits of mobility would accrue to some of the area’s poorest residents, they say, citing a recent survey showing that 42 percent of DATA riders have annual incomes of less than $10,000.
The same study also showed that 89 percent of DATA riders make less than $55,000 and that 59 percent take buses at least six days a week.
The last time these plans got a public airing, in March, planners were still contemplating bus rapid transit in lieu of Durham-Orange light rail. They’ve turned away from that option, saying that trains can provide mobility unhindered by traffic jams.
They also promote rail transit as something that will spur heavier development around stations than any kind of bus transit would do. Planners say that state law requires incentives to be implemented in hopes of having 15 to 20 percent of homes around stations be workforce housing.
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Transit planners say that the reactions they’ve gotten at the first three meetings this month have been positive, perhaps because those inclined to favor mass transportation are drawn to the events. In a matter of days, the Metropolitan Planning Organization should have a survey on its home page that could draw a broader spectrum of views.
One man at Wednesday’s meeting, a disabled 44-year-old who declined to give his name, said he liked what he saw, citing his expectation that gasoline-powered automobiles will no longer be feasible in the foreseeable future.
But the man declined to offer an opinion on whether he supported the sales tax, a key to transit financing. And aside from that point, he wasn’t optimistic about the plan’s passing.
“If I know Durham, probably they’ll fight it tooth and nail,” the man said, citing what he called the divided nature of the city and its sensitivity to the past.
Another attendee was James Chavis, 57 and also disabled.
“I think it’s full of bull because we have been lied to before and we will be lied to again — about what they really plan or are doing for the plan,” Chavis said.
He argued that the plan ignores growth on the north side of Durham and expressed skepticism over the usefulness of the train system. Chavis instead wants bus expansion implemented before work on the train systems begins.
One planner told him that that is essentially how events would unfold, but Chavis still preferred withholding any approval for rail until new buses are in place.
During the meeting, he pressed officials about how the train systems would affect residential and business property. Patrick McDonough, senior transportation analyst for Triangle Transit, said that a mix of rail corridor usage and planning means that very few homes and a relatively small number of businesses would be displaced by track and station construction. (Some lessons have clearly been drawn from the construction of the Durham Freeway.) But Chavis seemed unsatisfied.
Activist, businesswoman and nonprofit operator Victoria Peterson came to the meeting as well. She felt skepticism going in but was more favorably inclined after seeing a presentation and grilling planners.
“I think it has the potential of really moving Durham to the next level,” Peterson said. “But I think the main thing is really the jobs, to make sure that the contract work is going to be done by Durham folks and that the ongoing jobs are going to be held by Durham residents.”
She was referring to the 6,400 construction jobs that the railroads could bring to the county, plus permanent jobs that could be generated by train operations and by business establishment and expansion along the rail corridors.
Peterson also told planners that it would be important to have citizen oversight and input for the transit system and urged them to consider putting more rail stops in African-American neighborhoods.
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Mass transit is not at a make-or-break point; that will likely come when Durham, Orange and Wake residents vote on the sales tax hike. But with the investment plan going up for approval later this month, the chances for residents to have meaningful input on transit’s future are dwindling.
Given all that, Monday’s county commission meeting should provide an interesting barometer of whether the public wants to see light rail and commuter service gain momentum — or whether they prefer to bring it to a halt before a single new railroad trestle is laid.