Orange County

Chapel Hill-Carrboro mayors send letter backing light-rail project

An artist’s rendering of a light-rail train running beside U.S. 15-501 over New Hope Creek in Durham.
An artist’s rendering of a light-rail train running beside U.S. 15-501 over New Hope Creek in Durham. Contributed

Nine current and former mayors from Chapel Hill and Carrboro jointly sent the Orange County Board of Commissioners a letter Thursday endorsing the Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit project.

The proposed 17.7-mile light-rail line would connect UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill with N.C. Central University in Durham, and form one leg of a regional transit system that’s also expected to include a commuter rail line between Durham and Wake counties.

The letter, as posted on former Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt’s Facebook page, stated:

“We are writing in support of the proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail Project that will connect Orange County with the rest of the Triangle. The project is essential to our future for a variety of reasons, including keeping our community an environmentally healthy and economically vibrant anchor of the Triangle metropolitan area.

“Over the past 50 years, our community has repeatedly decided to invest in public transportation. This began with Chapel Hill Mayor Howard Lee’s creation of the bus system in the early 1970s, and Carrboro Mayor Robert Drakeford’s persistent efforts to extend the system, which has grown into the robust network today that carries almost 7 million riders each year.

“It required vision and commitment to start and sustain this public transportation system. The vision began with a sense of community, and this is what sustains the vision today. Think about how those seven million riders would get around today without our public transportation system:

“What would the roads look like? There would be more of them, they would be wider, and they would be more crowded.

“What would our community look like? There would be more paved parking lots, fewer trees and less green space.

“Public transportation shapes our daily lives in ways that are sometimes invisible. For example, in the middle of downtown Chapel Hill – which has far more people, stores, and restaurants today than it did 20 years ago – there are 25 percent fewer cars today than there were 20 years ago. Likewise, even as Carrboro’s population has increased by nearly one-third over the past 20 years, average daily traffic on downtown streets has stayed roughly the same.

“Public transportation brings environmental benefits and contributes to social justice goals. While the towns in Orange County have grown, the pollution and frustration of traffic congestion have been reduced; in addition, the county has maintained environmental benefits such as the rural buffer and watershed protection. Social justice goals are served because mobility is the single strongest factor contributing to economic advancement for low-wealth families.

“The economic benefit of public transit is illustrated by the seamless integration of the county’s largest institution into the community. UNC is a partner in financing Chapel Hill Transit, and the system serves UNC Health Care staff, patients and visitors. The University recognizes that public transit is essential to the campus and hospitals.

“All of this background informs the decision our community confronts today: should we invest in the first leg of a Triangle-wide light rail public transportation system?

“We believe the answer is an emphatic yes. Our county leaders have negotiated an equitable cost-sharing agreement, and in return we can expect significant community-wide benefits. Just look at the enthusiastic support for the project from Clean Air Carolina, the Sierra Club, and Medical Advocates for Healthy Air, all of which endorse the light rail plan because it “yields significant environmental benefits,” assists low-wealth families “by enhancing transportation options and access,” and “boosts economic development.”

“Orange County as we know it today came about through many decisions over the years. None have been more important than decisions about transportation. The right decision today for our future is supporting the light rail plan. We enthusiastically support it – and urge our commissioners to support it too.”

Carrboro Mayors Lydia Lavelle, Mark Chilton, Mike Nelson and Ellie Kinnaird

Chapel Hill Mayors Mark Kleinschmidt, Kevin Foy, Rosemary Waldorf, Ken Broun and Howard Lee