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Why we need to build the Durham-Orange light-rail line

A concept illustration shows a train on the future Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit traveling alongside U.S. 15-501.
A concept illustration shows a train on the future Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit traveling alongside U.S. 15-501. Courtesy of GoTriangle

We live in a state that has made extraordinary investments in infrastructure over the past few decades. Even better, we live in a region that has reaped much of the reward from farsighted investments over that same period. It is for these reasons that the Durham-Orange light-rail transit project is an investment that should be built.

That Research Triangle Park was created is a major, unalloyed benefit to our region. When voters in the early ‘80s approved financing for the 10,000-foot second runway and new terminal at RDU International Airport, it made all the difference as research and finance companies have flocked to our area – bringing jobs for young people whose parents are grateful to have those opportunities close at hand.

In recent decades we’ve prevailed in the competition to become a top place to live, work and play. But it’s not the time to congratulate ourselves. We must do more than try to handle traffic – we have to provide mobility options to remain as competitive as we have been for the quality of life we all want to have.

Today’s and tomorrow’s work force are looking for a place that will offer mobility. Look no further than the solicitation put out by Amazon. Strong emphasis was placed on a robust transit system as a key attribute sought. Why is that? Because Amazon wants to compete for the best workforce they can attract, and they know that workforce is looking for a place where mobility doesn’t equate to a single occupant automobile.

The 18-stop Durham-Orange line will run nearly 18 miles from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to N.C. Central University in Durham and will cost about $2.5 billion to build.

Major transportation projects are expensive — very expensive. I-40 serves as a cautionary tale for road widening as solution. It is scheduled for a $1.2 billion investment from Wade Avenue to 15-501 starting in 2026. And that investment is not expected to be a full solution to congestion – merely a strategy for creating another mobility option.

When I-40 was under consideration, the 1980 project study estimated the traffic along the I-40 corridor in Durham to be about 13,500 average daily trips . By 2000, the study estimated traffic on the new road would be about 20,000 trips. By 1999, traffic was measured at 2.5 to 3 times that amount. And, after adding a lane to both directions of travel, the most recent posted data from 2015 shows 120,000.

Why discuss the cost of I-40? To make the point that after the incredibly high cost of all the prior construction, we have today a piece of infrastructure that has been a linchpin of growth in our regional community, spurred investment that generated public revenues to provide all sorts of programs and amenities, and can provide additional capacity with additional investment.

We have these benefits and will have the future service from that road for one reason. Almost 40 years ago, right of way was acquired and an expensive project was built that suited the needs of the time. The Durham-Orange light-rail project is the same sort of decision. If we are going to have a high capacity transit system, right of way must be preserved and the project built.

Every time a light rail system has been built in the United States, private investment flows to that corridor. With projected growth in our state expected to focus on two regions (the Triangle and Charlotte) getting 75 percent of the population increase in the coming decades, we have to remember that I-40 projection — 20,000 became 120,000. Our future includes no less potential change, and we should move forward to provide mobility to meet the challenge.

Nick Tennyson is former secretary of the N.C. Department of Transportation and mayor of Durham. Wib Gulley is a former member of the N.C. Senate and mayor of Durham.

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