Wake commissioners lukewarm on light rail

Posted February 26, 2014

— Regional transit officials are excited over federal approval on Tuesday to enter project development on a 17-mile light rail system in Durham and Orange counties, but Wake County commissioners remain light on the idea.

The light rail line would run from Chapel Hill to East Durham with proposed stops that include UNC Hospitals, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, Duke University Medical Center, VA Medical Center, downtown Durham and North Carolina Central University.

Project development is scheduled to take two years followed by a three-year engineering phase. Construction would begin afterward and could take 4 to 5 years before light rail service could begin.

The project cost is estimated at $1.34 billion, according to Triangle Transit. Voters in Durham and Orange counties approved a one-half cent sales tax to fund the local share of the project along with new and expanded bus service.

“I hope this will cause conversations to be a little more serious in Wake County,” said David King, Triangle Transit general manager.

Conflicting regional views

The Wake County Board of Commissioners has yet to take up a 2011 transit plan that includes commuter rail service between Durham and Garner and light rail service from downtown Cary to Triangle Town Center. Commissioners established a transit panel in September to examine the county’s transportation infrastructure and feasibility.

Wake County Board of Commissioners Chairman Joe Bryan wants a more measured approach to public transportation. He believes the county should focus more on education, human services and public safety.

“I could not personally support a plan like this in Durham and Orange County when you're counting on 75 percent of the money like a make believe unicorn that's gonna come from somewhere else,” he said. “It doesn't exist.

“Last time I checked, neither the federal government nor the state government has any money.”

North Carolina’s largest city wouldn’t have the system it has if elected officials had Bryan’s view, King countered.

“Had Charlotte taken that attitude, they wouldn’t have 9.5 miles of light rail,” he said. “Nor would they be doubling that line as we speak.

“So perhaps the unicorn is in the eye of the beholder.”

Durham commissioners approved a transit plan in 2011 that includes commuter rail between Durham and Wake counties and the light rail system. Durham voters approved the one-half cent sales tax that same year. Orange County voters approved the tax the following year.

Transit is slated for discussion during Wake commissioners’ scheduled retreat on Friday.

Ongoing effort

The idea of a passenger rail system in the Triangle has been visited in the past.

A regional rail plan was discussed in 1995, with the state signing a full-funding grant agreement with Triangle Transit in 2003 for the 35-mile plan, according to the Regional Transportation Alliance, a group founded by area chambers of commerce to represent businesses regarding transportation issues.

The plan was scaled down to 28 miles before Triangle Transit withdrew its federal funding request in 2006 due to the government’s low rating of the proposal.

Meanwhile, bus service has grown across the region with expanded and new express routes.

Part of the resistance behind bringing passenger rail service to the area is that the Triangle is spread out, said Harvey Schmitt, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.

Raleigh is the country’s 87th most congested market but is one of the top 10 fastest growing, Schmitt said.

“That has to make it harder to come up with a transit solution, and I think that’s one of the challenges we have to overcome,” he said. “But it is a challenge we must overcome if we’re going to move forward as a community.”

King believes it will be too late if Wake commissioners wait until anticipated ridership increases and vehicle congestion gets beyond control.

“Wayne Gretsky once said, ‘You don’t skate to where the puck is, you skate to where the puck is going to be,’” he said. “There’s a price for growth, and the price for growth is you have to prepare for it or it overwhelms you."


This story is closed for comments.

Oldest First
View all
  • John Paul Bertke Feb 27, 2014
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    Outstanding post!

    Opponents will complain about the cost, but they simply don't understand that NC has no chance of meeting the future cost of building more and more highway lanes.

    The cost of future maintenance for new highway lanes will dwarf the cost of rail, and as demonstrated by I-40 today, won't even touch our future transportation issues.

    RTP boosters want to add 100,000 new jobs, residents, and shoppers to I-40 between I-40, I-540, and the Durham Freeway. If they achieve even 10% of that dream, those highways would become a 24-hour parking lot.

    As Los Angeles discovered way too late, it really doesn't matter how good your quality of life is, if you can't move 10 feet in your car. Just sayin'.

  • Edward Tilley Feb 27, 2014
    user avatar

    "Wake commissioners lukewarm on light rail"

    Wake taxpayers are a lot less than lukewarm on light rail, and rightfully so!

  • rand321 Feb 27, 2014

    As a business owner looking to recruit workers to the area, having a lack of public transportation is a detriment to growth and raises the costs of employing people in Wake County. The younger workers who flock to the 21st century economic hubs are increasingly choosing urban concentrated areas. If Raleigh, Cary and Apex are going to prosper 20 years, from now...we must solve the transportation issues and adjust to more population density. Rail is not for the next 5 years, but 10 to 20...the cost of highways, car ownership, pollution are going to continue to escalate....can we afford to build highways like Atlanta and LA? We will spend more money with out light rail then with it. we cannot afford to not seriously plan or consider for changing living patterns and growth. Suburbia is now experiencing urban decay and the urban centers are growing.

  • didisaythat Feb 27, 2014

    You assume this will attract businesses. So you want to spend the billions to attract businesses, but don't want to give them tax breaks to come....So spend the money on a possibility, ok, but give tax breaks for a definite business coming, no way...makes sense.

  • didisaythat Feb 27, 2014

    Bryan stand your ground. There is no money to do this and the money will not be generated by the consumers to keep it afloat. Once built they will have to keep pouring money to keep empty trains running.

  • jmurpra Feb 27, 2014

    If a city/suburb has been built with easy & freely available parking, its going to be tough to force its residents to use any form of public transport. Probably, that's one of the main reasons why NY & DC metros are successful and LA & Atlanta ones are not. So make your guess on this one!

  • Michael Lashley Feb 27, 2014
    user avatar

    Let the people vote on it!

  • glarg Feb 27, 2014

    "Its just funny to me that people bring up the "American dream" of living in the suburbs with a house and a yard with a boat and a gas guzzling SUV."Why dont you try it? Its fantastic.

    Regardless of if *you* want it, it pretty short sighted to completely dismiss the possibility that other people do.

    The reality is that mass transit systems do not pay for themselves and require a constant subsidy of public funds.

    Look at the planned route of the train and you can see that you can get anywhere on the train route much more conveniently, in much less time, by car. The city with the worst traffic in the country, LA, has an underutilized train system that cost billions. People dont use it because car travel is preferable.

  • brianjgrier Feb 27, 2014

    The big headache with the light rail is that it will not go from where the houses are to where the businesses are. For that you need busses to/from the rail station. No where is this addressed.

    For Raleigh Residents that live near seaboard station this could be great, unless your job is not near a stop.

    The planners need to realize that the rail system needs to parallel 540 with a transit to busses around the 540/40 interchange. to get people into and out of RTP. Maybe another rail spur could follow the Durham expressway.

    But to go from Raleigh to Chapel Hill? Why? To Duke? Again Why? This is a poorly planned rail system that really only helps people that want to go between NC State, UNC and Duke.

  • Larry Wiandt Feb 27, 2014
    user avatar

    View quoted thread

    Right, like Charlotte.. higher taxes and cuts in service. That worked well.