Advancing light rail

The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit plan cleared a significant milestone in its tortuous journey Monday night when the Durham County Commissioners approved a revised cost-sharing agreement with Orange County. The next move will be up to the Orange County Commissioners, who will discuss and vote on the new agreement Thursday night.

Government officials and light-rail advocates have been trying to move the project forward for years, in the face of shifting priorities in Washington and in Raleigh, inevitably rising costs and sometimes strong doses of skepticism from the public. In its initial phase, it would be a 17.7-mile link with 18 stations between UNC Hospitals and N. C. Central University.

Critics have derided it as an inflexible system tied to the rail line, as opposed to the greater flexibility of buses. Too few people would be served by that initial link, the opposing arguments go, to justify the cost.

But this is the sort of project that calls to mind the wise advice of hockey great Wayne Gretzky to “skate to where the puck is going, not to where it’s been.”

Our road congestion, bad as it is, may still be manageable by the standards of truly clogged urban areas like Atlanta, Los Angeles or New York. But the dynamic growth that has both reflected and created an economy the envy of much of the state and scores of other metro areas shows no sign of abating. Our transportation future can be defined by ever-more-fruitless addition of lanes to already jammed highways, by gridlock even at off-peak times or by exploring mass transit alternatives that will move people quickly and efficiently in something other than their own beloved cars and SUVs.

Light rail offers the opportunity — in concert with the sort of intentional urban planning of which this region is demonstrably capable — of influencing residential and business development in a way that will dovetail with efficient transit options. The construction of the interstate highway system — a massive government spending project — helped shape the post-World-War II development of sprawling low-density suburbs and shopping malls spreading out from dying central cities. This generation and those to follow can flip that script by investing in transit systems that will encourage greater density and compact neighborhoods best served by high-speed light rail.

Orange and Durham officials have in the face of sharply curtailed potential state support hammered out a cost-sharing plan that recognizes the different capacities — and benefit from the plan — of the two counties, and spawned a partnership to fill a critical funding gap with private funds.

Wendy Jacobs, chairwoman of the Durham County Commissioners, called that body’s vote Monday night historic. The Orange commissioners have an opportunity for a similarly historic vote Thursday evening.