Rail project scores low in new DOT rankings

May. 14, 2014 @ 09:11 PM

A proposed light-rail line between Durham and Chapel Hill fared poorly in preliminary rankings of road, transit and other transportation projects state officials released on Wednesday.

The prospective $1.8 billion connection wound up as the ninth-ranking transit initiative in the N.C. Department of Transportation’s still-preliminary attempt to rank-order projects for eventual funding.

Early reaction from Triangle Transit, the organization that’s planning the rail line, was reserved.

“It’s going to take us a while to assimilate the scores,” Triangle Transit General Manager David King said, adding that his staff will double-check the data DOT plugged into its scoring system.

Durham-area transit projects as a group did well, holding down 13 of the top 20 slots in the rankings as assessed by their importance at what DOT considers the regional level.

But the “quantitative” ranking system DOT crafted at the behest of Gov. Pat McCrory and the N.C. General Assembly tended, as in an initial listing of road projects released earlier this spring, to favor relatively low-dollar initiatives.

So it suggests that when it comes to transit, state officials should be helping to pay for bus shelters and transfer points in the Southpoint and Patterson Place area before they consider chipping in on a big-dollar effort like the rail line.

More broadly, however, the new system favors spending money on highway and airport projects more than it does on public transit.

It awarded high scores to a series of projects in and around RDU, among them a series of interchange upgrades and a potential $100 million reconstruction of the longer of the airport’s two main parallel runways.

Within a legislatively defined area stretching from Virginia to South Carolina that includes Durham, Raleigh and Fayetteville, DOT reckons 89 road projects would have more “regional impact” than the Durham-to-Chapel Hill rail connection.

Nineteen of those projects are in Durham County proper.

Renovations of one of the western Triangle’s more notorious traffic bottlenecks, the intersection of N.C. 54, Farrington Road and Interstate 40, are near the top of the list.

Further down, the agency reckons it should fund another citywide upgrade of Durham’s traffic signals and a widening of Durham Freeway through the heart of the city before allotting money to the rail link.

The rail project lost out in part because DOT engineers figure it would have almost no congestion-relief benefits, as measured in prospective travel-time savings between Durham and Chapel Hill.

Their scoring indicates they do think the project would have economic-development benefits, a key point in local arguments as the officials who advocate it want to channel more of the area’s expected growth into the rail corridor than into the suburbs.

All the scores are still very preliminary, remaining subject to change once DOT factors in the “local” input a 2013 law says should influence the rankings of projects that matter mostly to a single region or DOT operating division.

But in interpreting the law, state officials have made it clear DOT intends to put a thumb on the local-input scales too, claiming part of the say there for its own division engineers along with approval rights over the methods city and county officials use to weigh a project’s merits.

King said the agency in trying to come up with an “apples to apples” ranking system for both highway and transit projects is plowing new ground, as no other state has one.

“You can criticize them all day long, but they’re trying to invent this out of whole cloth,” he said, adding that he has “a great deal of empathy for the enormity of the task” given that DOT is trying to rate thousands of projects.

Transit planners here and in other cities are also working these days on the assumption that two of the three usual sources of project funding -- federal and state subsidies -- might not be as readily available as in the past.

That means considering the feasibility of using an assortment of “public-private partnerships” to tap other funding sources, a task Triangle Transit has already begun, he said.

A new transit project in the Denver area has between 25 and 27 different sources of money, not the usual three, King said.

“The simplistic model of 50 percent federal [funding], 25 percent state and 25 percent local 10 years from now will likely be a dinosaur,” he said.

The change is because Republican politicians – including those who now dominate the General Assembly – are generally hostile to public transit.

Ironically, McCrory though also a Republican championed the construction of Charlotte’s light-rail system while he was that city’s mayor. The new DOT rankings have no immediate effect on that system; Charlotte officials completed one line in 2007 and broke ground on a second last year.