End of Durham-Orange light rail could help Chapel Hill bus-rapid transit line

The end of the planned Durham-Orange light-rail line will give Chapel Hill’s bus-rapid transit project the boost it needs to continue seeking $112 million in federal dollars.

Bus-rapid transit, or BRT, relies on dedicated lanes, priority at stop lights and platform boarding to deliver more efficient bus service.

The $140 million North-South BRT line would connect Eubanks Road in northern Chapel Hill to UNC Hospitals and Southern Village via N.C. 86, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and South Columbia Street.

The project is nearly 30% designed, Chapel Hill Transit Director Brian Litchfield said.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners voted last week to move $8 million in local transit sales taxes and vehicle fees set aside for light rail to the BRT project.

GoTriangle and the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro regional transportation planning group still must approve transferring the money, which would only be spent if state funding for the project is less than expected.

The county has another $12 million in local dollars available for other transit needs next year, Deputy County Manager Travis Myren said. Roughly $3.7 million could go to local and regional bus services, he said. Another $5.2 million is for capital projects, including the Hillsborough Amtrak station, new buses and work already done for light-rail planning.

Commissioner Earl McKee, who has argued for bus-rapid transit over light rail, lauded the “light at the end of the tunnel.”

“There will be folks that are going to be inconvenienced by not only the construction, but by the very presence of it, and I hate it, but we are going to have to address our transportation needs locally and then move regionally, and this is a move to that,” McKee said.

Deadline approaching

The Orange County Transit Plan already includes $6.1 million for the BRT project, which got a high ranking in last year’s state funding process. However, the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro group voted to remove the BRT from the state’s application process to give the light-rail project a better shot at state funding.

The 18-mile light-rail project died in April amid financial, project and partnership challenges.

An application for $25 million for the BRT project has since been submitted to the N.C. Department of Transportation, Litchfield said, but an answer isn’t expected until early next year. That’s too late to get a project rating, he said, which requires Chapel Hill to show the Federal Transit Administration it has commitments for at least half of the $28 million in local costs. The $8 million transfer would help do that.

The deadline previously was in September, but FTA officials notified Chapel Hill last week that it had changed to Aug. 23

“Once we’re rated, that would allow us to get a better sense of how we’d score within that federal process and give us a better sense of our potential to get federal funding,” Litchfield said.

FTA approval and additional planning would move the project into the engineering phase — the last step before a federal project grant and construction. The board could get an update this fall about the FTA rating and station planning process, he said.

If all goes as planned, the BRT route could start serving riders in 2023.

A bus-rapid transit line in Richmond, Virginia, serves roughly 4,000 riders a day, Litchfield noted. Chapel Hill’s BRT line could serve about 8,500 riders a day when opens, he said, and in five years, about 12,000 riders a day.

The system will free existing buses to serve other areas and has the potential for future extensions to Hillsborough, UNC’s Eastowne office park, Carrboro and White Cross, west of Carrboro, Litchfield said. It also will connect with regional lines operated by GoTriangle and the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation in Greensboro.

What’s next

The public and Chapel Hill Town Council will have multiple opportunities in July to offer ideas for the BRT line’s stations and surrounding development. Traffic and environmental analyses also are underway.

The design workshops, led by consultants with AECOM and Dover Kohl will be held:

Friday, July 12: 9 a.m., Town Council work session, Chapel Hill Town Hall, 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Saturday, July 13: 10 a.m.-noon, community input session, and 1-5 p.m., public forum and open house with focus groups. Both events will be held at The Franklin Hotel, 311 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill.

Sunday, July 14: 1-5 p.m., public forum and open house with focus groups at The Franklin Hotel, 311 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill.

Monday, July 15: 5:30-7 p.m., Chapel Hill Town Council presentation at Town Hall.

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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.