A necessary investment in our future

Our region has a success problem. We have attracted population growth at a level that ultimately will result in near gridlock on major transportation corridors. If we continue to be an attractive community, offering opportunities for our children and for the organizations that employ them, we have to have alternatives to sitting in traffic.

Meanwhile, young people who are finding opportunities in our region are making lifestyle choices that depart from our traditional growth patterns. They like living downtown. They don’t necessarily want to own a car. When they are considering options for where they want to work, they are looking for communities that offer mobility options.

In 2011 in Durham County and 2012 in Orange County, voters approved a one-half cent sales tax by an overwhelming margin to fund significant new transit services including the proposed light rail project. This passenger rail service is called the Durham Orange Light Rail Transit project, or “DOLRT.” Later this month county commissioners in both counties will be voting on an updated transit plan that supports continued work on the DOLRT. We believe that there are several important reasons to support and continue work on this rail project:

1. All transportation infrastructure is expensive. Freeways cost $20-$35 million or more per mile to widen. One of the primary costs is the expense of acquiring right of way on which to build. It is reasonable to expect adding a new mode of travel — providing a major improvement in the mobility alternatives — will be expensive. It is also undeniable the cost will only increase if we pass up this chance to get started.

2. The DOLRT will serve a corridor which has some of today’s and tomorrow’s highest projected travel demand, and it will do so in the long run more cost effectively than any other transportation option. The dependability of the rail service stands in stark contrast to the “some days crowded, some days hours in traffic” uncertain nature of car and bus traffic today, not to mention what future growth of traffic demand will bring us.

3. Research into the economic stimulus impact of the new rail line has estimated that 20,000 new jobs in the two counties, $4.7 billion in economic benefits, and more than $175 million in annual tax revenues to the two counties, their towns, and the State of North Carolina.

4. We are particularly heartened by the support this new rail service will provide for wise land use and growth policies. While we both spent many hours working with our colleagues to develop and implement far-sighted land use policies, the continued strong population growth in our two counties makes this issue a continuing urgent priority.

We are familiar with the light rail systems in many other American cities, and we know that these projects are never without some opposition and understandable concerns about the cost. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of these projects is that a community and its elected leaders must sustain commitment to the project over many years. But we have also seen the other light rail systems in many cities be received with great support when they are opened and with ridership beyond expectations. In many cases the new rail service has revitalized parts of the community and helped anchor higher levels of economic activity and mobility. We urge our regional community and elected leaders to continue and sustain their support for this vital part of our future.

Nick Tennyson was Durham's mayor from 1997-2001. He was North Carolina's secretary of transportation from 2015-2017, having served as chief deputy sSecretary from 2013-2015. Wib Gulley was Durham's mayor from 1985-1989 and was chair of the N.C. Senate's Transportation Appropriations Committee for six years.