Who’ll ride the rails?

Imagine pitching a project to potential investors and not knowing whatNancy Oates your project will cost or how it will benefit stakeholders. Kind of like those anxiety dreams where you arrive at an important meeting without your pants on.

GoTriangle lived that mortification at the March 7 Town Council meeting when a council member asked how the Durham-Orange Light Rail would benefit Chapel Hill taxpayers, and the presenter didn’t have an answer. The Go-T rep said he’d only received the question that afternoon and hadn’t had time to prepare.

The DOLRT line has been in the works for years. You’d think someone early on would have run a cost-benefit analysis for Chapel Hill taxpayers, who will be shouldering a disproportionate share of the expense of the 17-mile track connecting UNC’s hospital with Duke’s.

The Go-T rep also didn’t know who would ride the train. Go-T’s studies looked at who rides the bus and extrapolated that those same riders would hop on the train. But the studies may not have looked at where riders start their trip. Many UNC workers live south and west of town, so while extended bus service would help their commute, the UNC-Duke shuttle train would not. And in other cities, light rail tends to cater to financially secure riders, whereas the more modestly paid ride the bus.

At the presentation to council, we heard about the train line’s capacity — more than 100,000 passengers — but some of the train stations don’t have parking lots. The largest parking lot planned on the Orange County side will hold only 472 cars, and the Go-T rep expressed reservation about building a parking deck at the Gateway station, off I-40. (A planned deck at the Alston Avenue station in Durham will hold 940.)

Go-T pointed out the many buses that run to UNC Hospital and campus already, implying that bus service had reached its limit. But perhaps so has UNC. Anna Wu, assistant vice chancellor of facilities operation and planning, had presented UNC’s development activity report earlier that evening, and while it showed many proposed renovations, it had no plans for any significant growth in capacity. Like many hospitals, UNC wants to open outpatient clinics away from the main hospital campus, beyond the train line’s reach.

The DOLRT has an estimated price tag of $1.6 billion, and that’s without the inevitable cost overruns and ongoing operating and maintenance expenses. Establishing a Bus Rapid Transit system and expanding bus service to towns south and west of campus would serve UNC employees better. We need to stop dreaming of a lifestyle that includes overpriced trains and focus on improving function by investing in BRT and expanded commuter buses.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Well said.

    Why do governments have so much trouble visioning for the future? Its especially challenging with long term projects like LRT which probably made sense when initially conceived nearly 30 years ago.

    Our world is changing quickly. Local transportation aspirations have not kept up with changing commuter patterns and emerging technologies like BRT and autonomous vehicles. Our transit dependent communities remain poorly served.

    What bothers me most is that Go-T and pro-LRT groups keep assuring us that the legislative cap will be lifted freeing up $138 million from the state. Even if they are correct, the plan calls for $400 million from the state- that’s $260 million short. Of course that doesn’t include funds that will be needed for overruns.

  2. plurimus

     /  March 21, 2016

    I posit that the cap won’t be lifted immediately and instead it will become a bargaining chip in future state budget negotiations.

    A high cost, low transit yield project with made up numbers, locally funded by a regressive tax on people that will never ride DOLRT. An economic development program that bypasses existing development, misusing public transportation funds; benefiting primarily developers, consultants and a wealthy few who will be able to afford to live nearby. A démodé mode of transit that ignores the disruptive changes in both technology and in the market place. A shiny transit trophy system governed by an entity that has no accountability to the voters or the people it purports to serve.

    Small wonder the electorate is angry on both sides of the political spectrum.

  3. Runner

     /  March 21, 2016

    Both the short route and the technology of this project are wrong. How can it be stopped?

  4. BikesBelongInCH

     /  March 25, 2016

    Listening to the car-addicted complain about mass transit projects is like heroin addicts complaining about public money spent on methadone clinics. (smiley face…Someone has to be the arbitrary nay-sayer to encourage healthy debate…).

    Suspect the “mass” part of “mass-transit” refers to the masses… will probably disproportionally benefit the middle and lower income citizens who can’t afford a car or parking fees. Possibly disproportionally benefits Durham vs CH.

    That said, there is some valid head scratching around DO-LRT, at least on the CH end (it does not go downtown, so what is the first-mile/last-mile solution for Franklin Street?)

    But seriously, Nancy, would like to understand why if LRT is not needed then why is BRT? Seems like the R (rapid) in BRT requires segregated lanes from cars (audible gasps and shudders) and those can’t be cheap or easily given up by auto-lovers.

    Pretty sure that Google Cars will not obsolete the world’s mass transit systems (the GA/Tea Party/Republican party line used to justify the cap). While autonomous vehicles will theoretically allow more cars on the same roads, suspect the typical North Carolinian will give up driving their cars much like they’ve given up their guns (i.e. they won’t). Sounds like we are back to the same solution, i.e. build more and bigger roads.

  5. Nancy

     /  March 25, 2016

    Bikes, if light rail went somewhere useful, such as RDU or downtown Raleigh, I would be fully supportive. I have yet to hear a convincing argument for whom this Duke Hospital-UNC Hospital line would serve. A large segment of hospital workers will not be able to afford the housing that will be built along the rail line. Buses offer more flexibility to put stops convenient to the neighborhoods where its riders live. Yes, we likely will have to add an extra lane along major arteries. Given the amount of new housing Chapel Hill, Pittsboro and Hillsborough and have approved, we’d probably have to do that anyway in the near future. Yes, some people won’t give up commuting in their cars. Even in Manhattan, where it seems crazy to drive a car with the comprehensive mass transit available, some people still drive their cars to work every day. Go figure.

  6. plurimus

     /  March 25, 2016

    Bikes: For one thing BRT can have a lot larger scope for less money. For a second BRT can leverage existing right of ways rather than cutting a new one through wetlands and Thirdly, BRT is inherently more flexible.

    I was not aware the GA/Tea Party/Republican party knew what google was. Reference please?

    People give up their cars when it suits them. Think about it; every car probably get used some small single digit percent of the time you own it. All that time you are paying for insurance, taxes, maintenance etc. Anyone would quickly realize that capital could be better employed (perhaps they could buy more guns) if there was a viable/reliable alternative. Think of it as leasing on steroids.