Nimble transit planning

Aug. 14, 2014 @ 06:21 PM

Officials in Durham and Orange counties have managed to creatively navigate new state transportation planning guidelines and come up with a united two-county push for resources for a light rail line linking Durham and Chapel Hill.

The Cross-County Transportation Committee adopted a set of rankings Wednesday for major transportation projects that gave the light rail line the maximum support. It reflects the long-standing belief by local officials that light rail – or some kind of improved, high-speed mass transit – is critical as our area continues its rapid growth.

In both counties, elected officials know they have the wind of public opinion at their backs, with both having won voter approval for an additional half-percent local sales tax to be devoted to transit projects. Roughly six out of 10 voters in each county agreed with the added tax in separate referenda.

Boosting the position of our local officials in pressing the case for staten subsidies for the rail project, division engineers for the N. C. Department of Transportation scored the project similarly highly. The engineers and local elected officials have equal weight in providing “local input” for state transportation planning.

DOT is following a new, more data-driven process for planning road projects. By and large, that’s a wise approach to road planning that too often has been driven by political concerns, lobbying efforts and the historically outsized influence of rural legislators. 

Indeed, the process, by funneling the larger share of state road funds to projects with statewide impact, will work somewhat against our region’s efforts to secure light-rail funding. It’s hard to argue with the overall priorities, though – and local officials by working with DOT on some tradeoffs in the plans have been able to gain maximum leverage for the funds that will be available for such regional projects.

It doesn’t take more than a couple of encounters with the congestion that can clog Interstate 40 between Raleigh and Durham, especially around the Research Triangle Park, or a rush-hour slog along U.S. 15-501 or N. C. 54 between Durham and Chapel Hill, to realize we can’t keep pouring more and more asphalt to meet our transportation needs.

As bad as traffic is today, the prospect of the Research Triangle region growing by close to another million people in the next couple decades should focus our thinking on alternatives.

Our leaders in Durham and Chapel Hill have been doing just that – even if their counterparts in Raleigh and Wake County have proven far more cautious. 

The coalescence at our end of the Triangle around the light rail project is another sign of the foresight and persistence that gives hope the project may one day become a reality.