DOLRT’s Cost-Plus

If anything could sway me toward taking on the crushing debt of the Durham-Orange CountyNancy Oates Light Rail it would be the promise of getting some affordable housing in return. And sure enough, in its presentation about planning DOLRT stations, GoTriangle reps dangled that yarn ball before Town Council — including affordable housing in the mix of luxury rentals, retail shops and office space.

Forget that every developer except one (Epcon Communities, builder of the Courtyards at Homestead) has said that it “can’t make the numbers work” to include affordable units alongside its market rate ones.

Forget that three of the five stations in Orange County are on land belonging to UNC, and Chapel Hill has no say on what goes there. A fourth station is on land that is completely built out already.

The GoTriangle reps at the Feb. 13 Town Council meeting pushed forth the notion that the developers who have bought up the prime greenfield real estate along the DOLRT line would be happy to build affordable rentals within walking distance of the light rail stops.

Until council member Jessica Anderson noted that developers likely would not provide this housing as a gift. Would the town have to subsidize these units, she asked. The GoTriangle rep shifted his weight self-consciously and admitted, “That’s usually how it works.”

So, Anderson continued, in addition to finding money for the DOLRT’s growing budget, Orange County taxpayers would have to fork over millions of dollars more for affordable housing units? “Yes,” the GoTriangle rep conceded.

That got me thinking about what we could do if we weren’t locked into essentially a 50-year mortgage to repay $2.5 billion for light rail.

Last fall, a consultant we hired identified about $100 million in affordable housing need, which we considered an impossible amount. At the Feb. 13 meeting, a community member laid out an extended Bus Rapid Transit plan that would serve almost all of the areas where UNC says its hospital and university employees live. That plan would cost less than $1 billion.

GoTriangle said it was asking the Orange County commissioners to delay its up-or-down vote on DOLRT until June. But GoTriangle plans to start the $70 million engineering phase in April. GoTriangle’s argument in December at the joint boards and commissions meeting was that if county commissioners pulled the plug on DOLRT, taxpayers would forfeit the chance that the federal government would reimburse the county for the $30 million we have spent so far. With Donald Trump’s government by fiat, there is no guarantee we would be reimbursed at all, much less for $100 million, the accrued amount if we proceed with engineering. (The engineering contract can be terminated at any time without penalty.)

We have a vision for Chapel Hill, which includes “A Place for Everyone.” When enacting that vision has been stymied, it is usually because of lack of money. Proceeding with DOLRT could sidetrack us permanently from becoming the town we want to be.
— Nancy Oates

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  1. Bonnie Hauser

     /  February 20, 2017

    Well said Nancy – and of course the real opportunity is that if we abandon DOLRT now, we can start work toward a plan B that provides better transportation a lot sooner.

    Consider that Wake is providing over 100 miles of BRT and frequent bus service for the cost of DOLRT. That means everyone benefits- not just the people who live on the corridor. Consider what happens to affordability if it’s possible to live without a car (or one less car).


  2. DOLRT is one big con job that’s been perpetrated on the public. The proponents say it will benefit low income people, but it will do the opposite. It will cause gentrification along the route. The proponents say it will relieve traffic congestion, but it will actually increase traffic due to at-grade crossings. Paying off the DOLRT debt will starve other programs. That’s what prompted me to coin the term “Giant Vacuum Cleaner” in a January 4th Chapel Hill News guest column that I wrote.

  3. plurimus

     /  February 20, 2017

    “Forget that three of the five stations in Orange County are on land belonging to UNC, and Chapel Hill has no say on what goes there.”

    Not only that; whatever is built on that land is off the tax rolls entirely,

    DOLRT sticks out in the “regional” transit plan because of cost and the relatively tiny area of Orange County and a small number of people who might benefit.

    Historically the DOLRT was conceived as a complement to Meadowmont. They made it abundantly clear they don’t want it and the Army Corps agreed. Now its being foisted on others.

    DOLRT was possibly a good idea last century but technology, social changes and the great recession have made it obsolete. Beside the absurd cost, it can never be “green” (other than paint) when they are paving over a watershed. DOLRT cannot be just when it will dislocate those of moderate means away from station areas, and it is being supported by a regressive sales tax. We already know DOLRT is not fast, and with 40 at grade crossing it will make traffic worse. Duke and the UNC system are primary beneficiaries and are not kicking in a dime.

  4. Regarding DOLRT promoting affordable housing. Under Land Use (Community Character) section page 3-42 of GoTriangle Financial Plan, Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project, NCCU Station Refinement Supplemental Environmental Assessment, 11/2016:

    The NCCU Station Refinement is expected to result in the following direct and indirect effects to land use:
    * Acquisitions and displacements of residences and businesses along Alston Avenue to allow for widening of Alston Avenue to accommodate the light rail trackway
    * Pressure for increased density of development, particularly around the proposed stations
    * Acquisitions and displacements resulting from indirect land use changes
    * Gentrification and reduction in affordable housing

    In addition, this comprehensive US Census Bureau study: Transit Access and Population Change: The Demographic Profiles of Rail-Accessible Neighborhoods in the Washington, DC Area highlights that rail transit project have accelerated gentrification of communities around stations resulting in African-American, ethnic and lower-income residents being pushed away from the very facilities that were justified on their behalf. The studies demonstrated that a concentration of higher-income families, typically white between the ages of 25-35, now live in close proximity to the transit stations; while minority and low-income families have been driven away from rail transit locations by ever increasing rents and into other low-cost communities. One of the unexpected consequences of rail projects, as demonstrated in the recent studies, is its regressive housing outcome, despite the project having been ‘sold’ as progressive. Here are some excerpts from the report:

    Findings reveal that young adults, recent movers, white workers, highly educated workers and workers with high earnings all disproportionately live near rail stops in Washington and the five surrounding counties with at least one Metrorail stop.

    … white workers are disproportionately represented in neighborhoods near rail stops. For the 2011-2013 period, 56 percent of workers living near rail stops were white, whereas 38.3 percent of workers who did not live near rail stops were white.

    … a growing body of research examines displacement of low-income residents from transit-rich neighborhoods. One study examined the relationship between affordable housing and TOD, finding that barriers such as the high cost of land near rail stops present considerable challenges to developing and maintaining affordable housing within transit-rich neighborhoods. Another Washington, DC- based study found that the transportation-related savings associated with the most transit-rich neighborhoods are unlikely to offset the high cost of housing in these areas for low-income workers.

    The Proportion of Black Workers Declined in Rail-Accessible Neighborhoods. The racial and ethnic makeup of the Washington, DC region has changed notably over the last decade, but shifts in the racial and ethnic composition of neighborhoods are disproportionately reflected within rail-accessible areas. Within Washington, DC, between 2006-2008 and 2011- 2013, the proportion of Black workers declined from 32.9 percent to 24.1 percent within rail- accessible blocks, whereas the proportion of all other groups either increased or did not experience a statistically significant change (Figure 5). The proportion of workers in rail- accessible neighborhoods who are Black is about half that of workers with no rail access who are Black in 2011-2013, at 24.1 percent and 47.3 percent.

    An influx of relatively young workers to Washington, DC has contributed to a decline in the median age from 34.6 years in 2000 to 33.8 years in 2013.

    Within Washington and the surrounding areas, about four out of 10 workers living in a rail-accessible neighborhood were between ages 25 and 34 for the 2011-2013 period. Moreover, between 2006-2008 and 2011-2013, the proportion of workers in this age group increased at similar rates for Washington and the surrounding counties at about 8 percent. Neighborhoods without rail access have a more even distribution of workers across age groups, both in Washington and the surrounding area.

  5. Bart

     /  February 21, 2017

    I’m sure I saw somewhere public meetings about placement of the rail stations. (My experience at these is that no one meets. The public gets told.)

    Won’t stations need lots of parking? Where will those lots go at the proposed Hamilton Road station?

    BTW, these folks have proposed demolishing Glenwood Elementary. Is there any real push for that ?

  6. Chloe

     /  February 22, 2017

    Yes, this plan looks like–dare I say it–a disaster. You’re kinda assuming that the 2.5B figure is what it will actually cost—tell that to the (bankrupt) developer of the Chunnel, or the people who paid for the Big Dig in Boston, or anyone who ever did any major public works. The estimate is already 25% higher than it was a couple of years ago. In my world 25% of $2B is a nice piece of change. I did some math. It turns out that the current cost, assuming half represents Chapel Hill, is (2.5 billion / 2 counties) divided by 60,000 Chapel Hillians = $42K each. That is to say $42K for every man, woman, and child in town. All to create more suburban sprawl and increase traffic between Chapel Hill and the Triangle? Assuming 4 person households, that does in fact work out to something like the mortgage on a house for every Chapel Hill homeowner.

    I was told by the GoTriangle folks in a meeting today that Chapel Hill buses currently serve 71,000 people per day. Turns out that figure was accurate—if you divide it by about twenty. The ridership figures on Chapel Hill Transit work out to 4,500 commuters going to work and back each work day. At a cost of $15M per year. Suddenly, millions are looking so comforting. Seems to me like the buses are looking pretty good for our needs.

    Meanwhile, the proposed rail doesn’t even go to downtown Chapel Hill or to downtown Durham. It connects empty spaces in between the UNC Medical center and points north and east—which is to say it is designed to INCREASE suburban sprawl between Chapel Hill and Durham. Because the suburban sprawl model has been working so well for us so far?

  7. bart

     /  February 23, 2017

    The fact that this project covers quite a bit of – for now – open area is NOT a good sign. Someone(s) is going to make quite a bit of money building high density housing near the rail that all of us will pay lots to build.

    Where will those people go to school, drive, shop, get water, etc? Even if the rail is built, that many extra folks will still clog roads. There will be a net increase in traffic and pressure on infrastructure, regardless of what is basically a rail spur.

    If people want to build high density housing, they will build it. But why do we have to make it MORE lucrative to do so? This rail project seems like an amenity rather than a plan. Even the newcomers will see it doesn’t go where they need to go on a regular basis.

    But it sure might sell units.

  8. Bonnie Hauser

     /  February 23, 2017

    Chloe – yes GoT is using that 70,000 number – conflating riders and people (riders = people * 2 way trips). 70,000 riders are 35,000 people. Estimated ridership for DOLRT is 13,500 people – about 2-3% of the total population of Durham and Orange in 2030.