Here’s how rural residents could benefit from the Orange County bus and rail plan

A GoTriangle illustration of a Durham-Orange Light Rail stop.
A GoTriangle illustration of a Durham-Orange Light Rail stop. Contributed

Editor’s note: This story was published originally on Oct. 31, 2012. Some details about the Durham-Orange light-rail project have changed in that time, including the system’s cost, length and the number of stations.

There’s no doubt the $1.4 billion bus and rail plan offers Orange County’s rural residents some benefits.

The question for rural voters is whether it’s worth spending $661.1 million in local, state and federal money to support the local part of a regional plan.

There are direct and indirect benefits, such as an Amtrak station in Hillsborough, expanded bus services and less future congestion, supporters say.

Others are skeptical, especially about the proposed 17.3-mile light-rail line from southern Chapel Hill to Durham. It doesn’t serve enough people or recognize changing commuter patterns, and it wastes money that could improve bus service countywide, they said.

Orange County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Bernadette Pelissier said the community will lose out on an important investment if voters reject a half-cent sales tax (five cents on a $10 purchase) to help pay for the plan.

One indirect benefit of the plan would be removing cars from already congested suburban and urban roads, she said. The plan also would corral development and create incentives to preserve the county’s farmland, an important part of its economy, she said.

More directly, the plan would expand Hillsborough’s in-town bus service and create a Mebane-Hillsborough-Durham express bus linked to the existing Hillsborough-Chapel Hill 420 bus route. It also would pay for the long-planned Amtrak station, helping residents who commute now to Burlington and Durham stations.

Rick Brewer, a Friends of Orange Transit member, drives from Hillsborough to Burlington every day to catch the train to Greensboro. He is cautious about the sales tax and thinks the money should be used prudently, but he’s also trying to see the big picture, Brewer said. The transit plan could make Orange County more competitive in attracting businesses, too, he said.

“I’m convinced this gets us there for the short term and the long term,” Brewer said.

But commissioner Steve Yuhasz said he worries the indefinite sales tax supports a flawed plan.

“It will continue on all sales in Orange County forever, and I don’t think that this plan will provide any kind of long-term benefit for all of Orange County,” he said.

He and commissioner Earl McKee also question the value of investing in light rail, since Durham would see the most economic benefit along its roughly 13-mile portion of the line. Bus service now with the potential for light rail in the future makes more sense, McKee said.

One thing everyone agrees on is the county can’t afford to build a significant transit network on its own right now.

Providing public transportation, especially for rural residents, has always been a challenge, Planning Director Craig Benedict said. People use bus and rail more often when it’s convenient and retail, restaurants and businesses are nearby, he said.

McKee said demand might grow if park-and-ride lots are built at the Northern Human Services Center in Cedar Grove, near U.S. 70-Interstate 85 in Efland and in White Cross, but the plan doesn’t meet those needs. Even if the sales tax fails, transit improvements will happen, he said. Local leaders would decide what services the county really needs “to address local transportation needs in a holistic way” and how quickly they can be done, he said.

Yuhasz said he doesn’t think there’s enough demand in the county’s northern rural areas.

“We don’t have that density and never will have the density to support bus service,” he said.

Senior, disability transit

The Orange County bus and rail plan doesn’t address seniors, residents with disabilities or work program participants who use demand-response transportation.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires Chapel Hill Transit’s EZ Rider service to match fixed-bus routes, and modern vehicles must have lower floors and wider or no steps for easier access.

Craig Benedict, Orange County’s planning and inspections director, said Orange Public Transportation’s Orange Bus riders could get more medical and senior center trips. They might address shopping and other non-medical needs in the future, he said.

CHT and OPT also are talking about how to work together. OPT Director Al Terry said one thing on the table is letting EZ Rider manage both systems. Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said that might erase the artificial boundaries that keep riders just outside CHT’s service area isolated and dependent on an overburdened county system. EZ Rider only serves riders within three-quarters of a mile of existing bus routes.

“It’s about making transit and mobility work for everybody,” he 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.