Triangle Transit is advancing plans for a future light-rail line between Chapel Hill and Durham, even as local critics and some experts continue to question the wisdom of spending nearly $30 million on required studies.
There are no guarantees that federal or state funding will be available to pay most of the $1.4 billion project cost, Triangle Transit General Manager David King said. An application to start the years-long federal funding process could be filed later this month.
Critics argue taxpayers don't have money to throw at a light-rail plan that may or may not happen. Instead, they would like to see Triangle Transit put more of that money into local and regional bus routes, even adding more express routes, commonly called bus-rapid transit.
A panel of experts appeared to validate those concerns in November when the men told the Wake County commissioners that the region lacks the population density, traffic congestion and ridership for a light rail. Wake County's transit plan and a voter referendum on sales taxes to pay for it are on hold.
The experts — Florida State University economist Sam Staley, former Denver transit chief Cal Marsella and Steve Polzin the transit research program director for a University of South Florida think tank — acknowledged by phone recently they didn't spend as much time reviewing the Orange-Durham plan. However, what they saw in the regional financial data also makes it hard to justify, they said.
They offered Orange and Durham officials the same advice they gave Wake County: Be patient.
"You really need to let your community grow and be open to the kind of needs that develop," Staley said.
Small metro region
According to census data, roughly half a million people could live in Orange and Durham counties by 2030. Well over a million could live in Wake County, but the Orange-Durham rail line won't go near Raleigh-Durham International Airport, Cary or Raleigh. Triangle Transit officials anticipate more than 14,000 daily light rail boardings between UNC Hospitals and the Alston Avenue station, east of downtown Durham, by 2035.
That makes the Triangle one of the country's smallest and lowest-density metro regions, the experts said. Staley, also a researcher with the Los Angeles-based, libertarian think tank Reason Foundation, said twice as many riders and taller, denser development is what keeps light rail cost effective. Rapidly changing transit technology also reduces the benefit of a 30- to 40-year rail investment, he said.
King said he thinks the men weren't given the information or time for a deeper understanding of regional needs.
The traffic between Chapel Hill and Durham is constant, whereas other cities see traffic one way in the morning and another at night, he said. Orange-Durham's proposed rail line would connect two dense universities and hospitals, traveling along U.S. 15-501 through a "pretty unappealing roadway," he said.
That also could change over the next 10 to 15 years, as transit plans help determine whether surrounding developments are dense or sprawling, he said.
Triangle Transit is funding the Orange-Durham plan through vehicle registration fees, voter-approved sales tax revenues and other resources. Roughly 75 percent of Orange County's new money could go to the light rail over the next 15 years. Bus-related capital costs are estimated at nearly $50 million, with $4.6 million in annual operating and maintenance costs.
The experts agreed the Triangle could be better served now by putting more money into cheaper, flexible options — more than the 34,000 new bus service hours already planned for Chapel Hill Transit, Orange Public Transportation and Triangle Transit in the first five years.
Another possibility is more bus-rapid transit routes that use dedicated lanes or get the right of way in traffic. One $24.5 million route is slated for Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, from Eubanks Road to UNC Hospitals, by 2019.