The Orange-Durham light rail has become a runaway train

Leaders and residents discuss Durham & Orange Counties’ light rail project

Leaders and residents of Durham and Orange Counties share why their community light rail project is so important for the future of innovation, environmental vitality, and economic opportunities in the region.
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Leaders and residents of Durham and Orange Counties share why their community light rail project is so important for the future of innovation, environmental vitality, and economic opportunities in the region.

In November, I resigned from GoTransit Partners, the group charged with fundraising for Durham-to-Chapel Hill light rail.

The reason was a last minute plan to close the Blackwell/Corcoran rail crossing to vehicular traffic, severing downtown Durham’s most vital artery. This mysteriously emerged so late in the process that GoTriangle said it was impossible to make significant changes.

In mid-December, however, a group of stakeholders and officials emerged from a closed-door meeting with a proposal GoTriangle accepted to keep Blackwell open by adding a tunnel and two bridges to the plan.

Clearly there is hunger on the part of Durham government for light rail.

They put Durham on the hook for 82 percent of local funding, or twice per resident what Chapel Hill would pay. The new proposal would easily add $100 million to their existing $743 million commitment. Durham is also responsible for over 80 percent of any cost overruns.And there will be cost overruns. This light rail plan was originally estimated to cost $1.4 billion, including Federal and State contributions. With engineering challenges and our regional building boom, it’s now expected to cost $2.5 billion, plus $800 million more in interest – without the tunnel and bridges and without addressing Duke Hospital concerns that have been left unresolved for a decade.

I believe in mass transit. Under the right conditions I’m a huge fan of light rail.

But this is a runaway train. It has to be derailed before we mortgage Durham’s future for a plan that falls far short of a solution that we really need.

Well before the 2011 light rail referendum, I spoke with regional leaders about “Making the Triangle Region a 21st Century City.” Noting that each corner of the Triangle is on its own growth trajectory, I suggested that to reach our full potential, we need to cause growth that brings Durham, Wake and Orange Counties closer together.

One way to accomplish that is to create a light rail system that connects all three through the RTP and our great portal to world, RDU. Such a user-friendly, frictionless regional plan is, for many reasons, yet to be devised.

Done right, mass transit drives economic development and socioeconomic mobility. The most attractive development benefit of the current plan is its potential impact on Patterson Place at 15-501 and 40. The rest of the line, however, is already highly developed, which, as we have seen, creates significant complexity and expense. It’s also not obvious that mobility gains would pass a clear-eyed cost/benefit analysis.

It’s time to consider alternatives.

All agree 15-501 is a mess. We already have better buses than you’ll find in most cities. Why not buy more and build HOV lanes? The latest FHWA data says we are among the cheapest states for road construction, at roughly $14 million per lane-mile, including engineering and land acquisition. Double that to $28 million for lanes in both directions. That’s still less than a fifth of the current $150 million per mile for this light rail plan.

Or imagine connecting downtown Durham to Treyburn Corporate Park, where Merck and Corning and other big manufacturers currently have to source talent from Virginia.

An abandoned Norfolk Southern rail line goes 25 miles north from Main Street past Treyburn to Person County. Light rail on that line would transport Durham workers to great jobs, bring more people to downtown Durham, and spur all sorts of tax base-enhancing development along the line.

Since a major part of the cost – the rail bed – is already built, Durham alone might be able to fund such a plan with just what they’ve already committed to the current project. Easier, cheaper, more beneficial.Cockamamie ideas? Maybe. But so is letting Durham bet the house on one of the largest public works projects in North Carolina history. Especially if it restricts our ability to invest not only in transit but in better schools, affordable housing, our parks, the arts and forward-thinking urban design: all things that could be truly transformative for Durham.

We need mass transit. But it’s time to set this plan aside and get Durham, Wake and Orange working together to build a compelling plan that transports the Research Triangle towards its full potential.

Brad Brinegar is chairman of McKinney, a Durham-based advertising agency.