NC 54 had these benefits over US 15-501 for Durham-Orange light-rail corridor

Evening traffic starts to stack up Jan. 29, 2019, at the intersection of N.C. 54 and Barbee Chapel Road near the Meadowmont community in Chapel Hill. A proposed Durham-Orange light-rail transit line could ease some of this traffic congestion in the future.
Evening traffic starts to stack up Jan. 29, 2019, at the intersection of N.C. 54 and Barbee Chapel Road near the Meadowmont community in Chapel Hill. A proposed Durham-Orange light-rail transit line could ease some of this traffic congestion in the future.

Editor’s note: This story was published originally on Oct. 24, 2012. Some details about the Durham-Orange light-rail transit project have changed, including the project’s size and cost.

Regional leaders weighed their options for more than 15 years before choosing N.C. 54 for a proposed light-rail corridor connecting Orange and Durham counties.

It isn’t everyone’s first choice.

U.S. 15-501 from Chapel Hill to Durham seems just as, if not more, congested and already has the commercial and residential density necessary to support light rail, plan critics say.

A 2009 survey by the Orange County Comprehensive Transportation Plan steering committee found 20 percent of 491 respondents identified U.S. 15-501 as one of two county roadways that need improvement most. N.C. 86 was the top choice, with U.S. 70 Bypass and N.C. 54 the third and fourth choices, respectively.

In that same survey, 31 respondents said they use secondary roads to avoid U.S. 15-501 altogether.

Both U.S. 15-501 and N.C. 54 could benefit from multiple transportation options, leaders say. In the end they chose the latter based on three factors: cost, ridership and development potential.

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Carrboro Alderwoman Lydia Lavelle, chairwoman of the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transit Advisory Commission, said the U.S. 15-501 corridor has a number of challenges. Besides environmentally sensitive New Hope Creek, there is limited undeveloped land, raising questions about how to integrate rail stations and mixed-use projects, she said.

There’s also the matter of where to build the rail line.

Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, another TAC member, said they could have built it in the middle of U.S. 15-501, similar to Interstate 66 in Washington, D.C. However, it would have been more expensive and more complicated for people to board safely, he said.

Environmental concerns also exist in the wetlands along N.C. 54, but there’s a route around them. The corridor also has large undeveloped tracts where homes, offices and businesses could grow around the light-rail stations, leaders said.

Regional transit map.jpg
A map shows how the Durham-Orange light rail, the Durham-Wake commuter rail, and Chapel Hill and Wake County bus-rapid transit projects would link together to form a regional transit network. John Hodges-Copple Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization

The bus comparison

Some light-rail critics have suggested the transit plan should focus on both corridors using bus-rapid transit, which has lower start-up costs and more flexibility.

Bus-rapid transit is cheaper to build, but personnel and vehicle costs are higher, Triangle Transit senior planner Patrick McDonough said. BRT — in which buses travel more often on dedicated routes — also attracts sprawl, because centralized mixed-use development doesn’t grow around the stops like it tends to do around train stations. Moving riders to light rail also frees up buses for more neighborhoods, supporters said.

Transit officials said N.C. 54 generates some of Chapel Hill’s highest bus ridership numbers.

The 17.3-mile N.C. 54 route links UNC and UNC Hospitals with Duke University and its medical center — both counties’ biggest employers. While a future connection with Carrboro and Carolina North would be ideal, Lavelle said the line to UNC Hospitals is what Orange County can afford now.

Light-rail construction costs roughly $80 million a mile, McDonough said.

Commuting patterns

Commuting patterns showed a light rail line along U.S. 15-501 would not have addressed the county’s biggest transit challenge — how to move university and health care workers.

According to available data, 39 percent of Orange County’s 52,836 workers are employed in the county, he said. Another 26 percent work in Durham and 12.8 percent work in Wake County. They only fill 3.5 percent of Research Triangle Park jobs.

“RTP improves the regional identity,” McDonough said. “In actuality, people in Orange County earn much more of their salaries from Durham, Wake and UNC.”

Triangle Transit runs two weekday bus routes between Chapel Hill, southern Durham and Research Triangle Park on the hour and every 30 minutes at peak times. About 11 passengers is normal, and Wake County routes also are underused, he said.

On the other hand, riders between UNC, Duke and Veterans Affairs hospitals are so full that people stand in the aisles, he said.

Congestion is not so easy to solve. Light-rail investments alone leave the N.C. 54 corridor severely congested in 25 years, a study shows. The route already serves roughly 45,000 cars a day, and long-range transportation plans show it could grow to 70,000 cars daily by 2035.

Similar studies have not been done for the U.S. 15-501 corridor between Chapel Hill and Durham, McDonough said.

Boosting light rail

Light rail combined with dense, mixed-use projects could have a bigger effect by encouraging more people to walk, bike or use public transportation for short trips, the study stated.

The bus is not as flexible if you want to run a quick errand or grab lunch, McDonough said. People also won’t use the bus if parking is free or plentiful, he said. But living or working within walking or biking distance of light rail gives you more options.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the town has been making land-use decisions based on future light-rail in the N.C. 54 corridor for more than a decade. East 54, Glen Lennox and Meadowmont, are ripe for light-rail hubs, officials say.

The university and UNC Health Care also are expanding through the corridor. UNC owns several hundred acres, including several parcels belonging to UNC Health Care affiliate, Health Systems Properties LLC. The health system also holds leases on 107,500 square feet of land at N.C. 54 and I-40, where it runs clinical and clinical research offices.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Army Corps of Engineers own another several hundred undeveloped acres as preservation lands.

Light-rail critics said they don’t see how the limited amount of rail in Orange County will make a big difference. In any case, where the light rail is planned is mostly irrelevant. The real problem is cost.

“We expect federal money to support that as if that money is coming from Mars. We pay federal taxes, too, and I run into people every day concerned about that,” said Bob Randall, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party. “At some point, there’s going to be no way to get ourselves out of (debt).”

Pollution, congestion benefits

The transit plan is ultimately an economic project that provides people and businesses with more opportunities, said Daniel Rodriguez, director of the Carolina Transportation Program at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The plan won’t have a big impact on air pollution or congestion because, while you may take drivers off the road, there will be more buses on the road carrying them, he said.

The small number of people using light rail also limits the effect on air pollution levels, he said.

Rodriguez and other UNC researchers completed a 2011 study of the effects that compact growth and alternative transit had on auto emissions in Mecklenburg County.

Although still under review by the Journal of American Planning Association, the study found compact growth reduces emissions only a little but more than alternative technologies alone. Carbon dioxide was the only exception, benefiting more from alternative technology use.

However, when compact growth and alternative technologies were used together, it reduced emissions by 9.9 percent to 17.4 percent.

Rodriguez, also an associate professor in City and Regional Planning, said strict federal emissions standards implemented in 2004 would make a bigger impact. By 2050, the standards could reduce most air pollution levels by 59 percent to 89 percent, the study found. Carbon dioxide again was the exception, rising 76 percent to 96 percent because there will be more people and miles traveled, it stated.

“Air quality is not going to be a big deal by then,” Rodriguez said.

Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.