North Carolina's Triangle Questions How Best to Connect a Multipolar Region

» With several urban cores and a major research park at the center, how would fixed-guideway transit work?

North Carolina’s Triangle is known as one of the most economically vibrant areas of the country. Its cities are growing rapidly and their inhabitants, attracted by several prominent universities, are some of the smartest in the country. Decades of population expansion, however, haven’t been followed by serious efforts to concentrate growth around better transit. Indeed, the region is sprawling more than almost any other, with the vast majority of new housing growth in new low-density subdivisions on the margins of the area’s four biggest cities: Raleigh, Durham, Cary, and Chapel Hill. Though downtowns have experienced significant regeneration over the past several years, the lack of efficient transit alternatives has handicapped hopes for further densification.

With more than one million inhabitants and increasing congestion on the area’s most-trafficked arteries, leaders have renewed their hopes of building a rail system that would connect neighborhoods designated for multi-story development. Recent decisions by the state that allow for local sales taxes and a willingness among municipal authorities to push for citizen referendums over the next few years may make such a network possible.

Yet, with several urban cores and the job-filled Research Triangle Park at the center of the region, politicians from a variety of interest groups will have a fight on their hands as they determine how to distribute a limited set of tax revenues. There is no overarching regional authority that runs the panoply of local bus systems today, nor a regional decision-making body. There are serious disagreements about where job growth should be centered. These obstacles will ensure that the implementation of a high-quality rapid transit system in the Triangle doesn’t come easily.

North Carolina leaders came close to moving forward with the construction of a diesel multiple unit line between downtown Durham and North Raleigh in 2004; at that time, the Triangle Transit Authority (now Triangle Transit) was leading the process, had developed an $860 million plan, and had acquired the majority of the right-of-way along the corridor. But in 2005, the Federal Transit Administration significantly altered its rule process for receiving New Starts grants, basically eliminating the plan from consideration and shutting it down. The lack of a strong local tax source was part of the problem, though so were lower-than-necessary ridership estimates.

Leaders came together two years later to form a committee to resuscitate the plan and in 2008 produced a 25-year, $8.2 billion investment project that would include a light rail line between Durham and Chapel Hill, a diesel multiple unit link between Durham and North Raleigh, express buses on the most congested roadways, and streetcar or bus circulators in the urban cores. At the same time, the North Carolina Railroad, which controls most of the right-of-way between Durham and Raleigh, began planning a one billion dollar commuter rail plan of its own that would extend from Greensboro to Goldsboro, duplicating most of the Triangle route with service at rush hours.

Meanwhile, in 2009, the state legislature approved a law that allows Durham, Orange, and Wake Counties — the core of the Triangle region — to increase sales taxes by 0.5% for transportation purposes, after a citizen referendum. This month’s announcement that the FTA would alter its New Start guidelines to incorporate livability and reduce their focus on cost-effectiveness, making the Triangle’s project again appropriate for federal funding, have added to the momentum.

With a renewed sense that a rail project is possible in the Triangle and an unprecedented opportunity to raise funds, local politicians are talking seriously about how to move forward. Despite the fact that the mayors of Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh are all pro-transit, they have divergent views about which corridors should be first put in service. The county commissioners of the three counties have their own priorities, as do the leaders of the region’s other cities.

If Triangle counties agree to hold a referendum on a sales tax for public transportation in November 2011, as now seems likely, they would be able to get the first lines in operation in about a decade — as long as the public agrees to the deal. Sales tax receipts would be distributed respectively by county, meaning that Wake County (with 870,000 inhabitants), which includes Raleigh and Cary, would get the majority of expenditures. Smaller Durham and Orange Counties (270,000 and 130,000 people, respectively) would be able to spend far less. The rejected earlier transit plan would have had no provisions of spending equity based on county population.

Wake County politicians have interpreted these rules to argue for investing first in a line between Northwest Cary and North Raleigh, through downtown Raleigh and the state capitol complex. They hope to build that 17-mile corridor, which would include nine stations, by 2019. Raleigh leaders have rejected the cheaper diesel multiple unit standard previously promoted and replaced it with light rail, which they consider a better technology.

Meanwhile, Durham and Orange Counties, which share a federally-designated metropolitan planning organization (Raleigh and Cary share another one), are holding discussions about a light rail line between downtown Durham and the University of North Carolina, via southwest Durham; this 15.8-mile project would open by 2023. Chapel Hill, closer to Durham both literally and politically (both are far further to the left than relatively conservative Raleigh), wants better commutes to Duke University and Durham’s 9th Street shopping area, as well as the rapidly improving downtown. South Durham, which has been the focus of rapid, spread-out growth and huge retail complexes, is left out of the picture, reasonably.

In other words, the Research Triangle Park may be excluded from initial investments, even though it is the region’s economic core and the source of its prosperity. Politicians in Raleigh and Chapel Hill argue that its suburban form would make transit there inefficient and poorly used, and they’re probably right. Durham leaders aren’t so sure, since they want a quick connection to Raleigh and most of the Park lies within Durham County borders. But it is true that there are probably more opportunities for redevelopment along the Durham-Chapel Hill line than along the Durham-Cary corridor.

The 16-mile connection between downtown Durham and Northwest Cary would come later — perhaps by 2025. This project would include an improved connection to RDU airport, though there would be no direct service. Ten years later, regional officials want to have lines spewing 9 miles southwest from Cary to Apex and 8 miles north from Raleigh to Wake Forest. Whether any of these lines could be implemented realistically considering the financial limitations of a 1/2-cent sales tax is unclear, especially since a major portion of revenues would go to expanded bus operations.

After all, Charlotte’s Mecklenberg County (population 900,000), which put a similar financing system in place in 1998, has only been able to build one 9.6-mile light rail line and won’t even begin construction on its second corridor until 2011 at the earliest.

Apart from questions of whether Triangle politicians are being realistic in their ambitions — or whether the lines they’re proposing make much economic sense, considering the region’s sprawling nature, limited current bus use, and the weak attraction of the existing urban cores — is why politicians have made a concerted choice to ignore the multipolar identity of the Triangle and instead pretend that it is split into two separate regions. At their most basic, the current proposals would provide Raleigh a light rail line heading in from its western and northern suburbs, and Durham would get a light rail line to the southwest. The goal espoused by planners in the early 2000s of connecting the region’s two largest cities has been laid by the wayside, reserved for a second phase.

In some ways, this downtown-centric policy makes a lot of sense: transit works best when it is oriented towards a job-heavy center city, since it can compete with congested routes and save commuters the cost of downtown parking. But the Triangle is unique, lacking a clear core, with few of the dense in-town neighborhoods most likely to attract transit users and with a large number of jobs in the sprawling auto-oriented research park. As a result, the two lines proposed for initial service probably won’t get many riders, at least compared to peer systems around the country.

An approach aimed directed at combating the area’s multipolar form may have been more appropriate, starting with the Raleigh-Durham inter-city line as originally designed. The most heavily used roadway in the region is I-40 between Raleigh and South Durham; the county-centric proposals wouldn’t address this corridor at all.

Or — hard as it is to admit for this native of Durham — perhaps the Triangle is simply not ready for rail rapid transit. How will trains in any of the corridors mentioned here ever attract adequate use when the biggest core, Raleigh’s downtown, only has 40,000 jobs and just a few thousand residents? When will the trains ever get the kind of traffic that necessitates their higher capacity compared to buses? By comparison, Charlotte’s center city has more than 10,000 inhabitants and 80,000 jobs — and it’s relatively small from the perspective of transit-encouraging cores.

If implemented with rapid lanes on the freeways and dedicated rights-of-way in the downtowns, the region could probably get a whole lot more for its money with an upscale bus rapid transit service. Lines could run directly between Raleigh and Chapel Hill or between Durham and North Raleigh without the inconvenient and time-consuming detours that will limit potential traffic.

But I could be wrong. The region is clearly interested in spending its own funds on these transit projects. The cities do need some kind of structural device to organize and encourage dense development; bus rapid transit wouldn’t do that nearly as well as would light rail. These cities have been sprawling so much that only a radical investment may help them reverse course. Perhaps it’s time to take a chance.

39 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Steve

    Yonah, I didn’t know you were a Triangle native. You should commiserate with Ryan Avent sometime, who is also from Raleigh. He bores us with, um, I mean writes about the RT from time to time. :)

    SD

  • One would think connnecting the Raleigh and Durham downtowns via RTP would be the first way to go. True, the region doesn’t have a single, focused, core, but such an idea would connect three of the “mini-cores” together…four if you include NCSU…that are fairly linear in alignment.

  • Ray

    I am also a former Triangle-ite. I would hope that some high quality commuter rail might serve to fill the gap here. Bi directional service on 1/2 hour peak and 1 hour off peak headways at least from DT Durham to DT Raleigh, ideally, Burlington to Wake Forest. This combination would overcome many of the shortcomings of an either or scenario. The LRT would serve local needs and if planned properly could foster TOD. Commuter rail could serve the needs of people headed to the park as well as people travelling metro to metro, who would be ill served by a LRT vehicle travelling at slower speeds.

  • Anon

    RTP is problematic to serve with transit–all those gated corporate campuses all spread out…impossible to navigate without a lot of feeder buses or car sharing. Having to transfer hurts the time-competitiveness, and the way the covenants in the Park are structured the DNA of land use will not change much.

    That said, linking Cary to Raleigh to Triangle Town Center makes a lot of sense, as does linking UNC to Durham. Once those things happen, it makes no sense *not* to link them through the Park. I guess my point is that the Park is really not transit friendly, so any transit that is aiming to help all those Park commuters on I-40 is not going to succeed in doing so in our lifetimes. Well, at least not mine.

  • Just wanted to mention that they’ve been talking about some kind of rail system since at least 1999. They can’t even get the political backing to run a little commuter rail shuttle along the existing freight tracks. I’d like to hope that now that Charlotte has light rail, Raleigh will want it too, but I’m not holding my breath.

  • Ocean Railroader

    I wounder would there have been older abaondoned streetcar systems in the area in the past? If there were streetcar systems in the past in this area they could help understand the behavor of some of the new light rail routes.

  • alexjonlin

    It seems to me that in an area that isn’t transit-oriented, only a rail rapid transit system would be successful. Granted, I don’t know the Triangle area very well, but generally, there are many people who will always refuse to ride a bus, but who are willing to ride rail.

  • orulz

    Lately, dropping the Raleigh-Durham light rail segment entirely has come up. Light rail would be retained for the areas where it makes sense from a density perspective: roughly UNC to East Durham, and somewhere in Cary to Triangle Town Center.

    That leaves a gap of roughly 12 to 15 miles between the two light rail systems.

    The idea would be to fill that gap with a concept known as “express rail.” Service levels would eventually be about 24 round trips per day, on an improved, double-tracked NCRR corridor between Raleigh and Durham. This would be a combination of HSR trains, which would run express all the way from Raleigh to Durham; Intercity trains, which might stop in Cary and at Metro Center in RTP; and local commuter trains which will stop every 2 to 5 miles. Some commuter trains could continue on to Goldsboro or Burlington. Read an article about it here.

    The Express Rail proposal makes a lot of sense when you look at the Southeast HSR line proposal. They would both benefit from the track improvements.

  • Max Wyss

    For orulz’ description, this area sounds like a ideal candidate for a “tram-train” scheme, where the light rail “systems” could be connected. This would also allow to reduce the number of different systems, which would reduce the price tag as well.

    However, it would also require that the involved cities and counties get their act together.

  • Andrew Edmonds

    Light rail along the edge of the Triangle may make sense. Yonah, are there plans online illustrating how a rail line would be shoehorned into the 15/501 corridor between Durham and Chapel Hill? Is there any utility in examining the existing rail line that runs west from Durham and heads into Carrboro/Chapel Hill from the north, through farmland and forest?

    Current time travel predictions for a passenger train between Durham and Raleigh leave me unimpressed. Currently, I take the TTA express bus to work in Raleigh (from Durham). It’s an hour, door-to-door, and about 40 minutes on the bus. I have a long personal history taking public transportation. I am politically liberal and would support a tax to spur more transit. I live near downtown Durham and work in downtown Raleigh. I am the perfect person to take a high speed train, but if the travel time is longer by rail, you’ll lose me to the bus.

    If I am a lost cause, how less likely will you get Joe the Plumber out of his V8 Ford Behemoth?

    Lastly, any transit plan that leaves out a leg to RDU misses a golden opportunity. My appreciation for mass transit rose exponentially when the shuttle between Newark Airport and the main Amtrak/NJ Transit corridor was built — and I no longer has to pay airport parking fees.

    There must be some RDU parking authority lobby that has fought hard against a shuttle train, but imagine how much people will love the train if it would eliminate that $10 a day.

  • John Thacker

    Indeed, the region is sprawling more than almost any other, with the vast majority of new housing growth in new low-density subdivisions on the margins of the area’s four biggest cities.

    And the region, thankfully, missed out on the housing bubble and has low housing prices as a result of all that building.

  • John Thacker

    The Express Rail proposal makes a lot of sense when you look at the Southeast HSR line proposal. They would both benefit from the track improvements.

    The Express Rail concept makes a lot of sense when you consider that the NCRR already owns a very wide corridor surrounding the existing line. It would be much easier and cheaper to put in more tracks and run commuter rail than to locate light rail tracks somewhere else and have to do land acquisition.

    There must be some RDU parking authority lobby that has fought hard against a shuttle train, but imagine how much people will love the train if it would eliminate that $10 a day.

    The existing tracks don’t run right by the airport, and acquiring the right of way would be expensive. A fast shuttle bus from the “Triangle Metro Center” stop above (near where I-40 and Miami Blvd intersect) would be reasonable, but they’ll probably go with more express buses from the downtown stops.

  • John Thacker

    The region is clearly interested in spending its own funds on these transit projects.

    The region is clearly interested in spending federal funds on these transit projects. Only some of these projects is the region clearly interested in spending its own funds on.

    Is there any utility in examining the existing rail line that runs west from Durham and heads into Carrboro/Chapel Hill from the north, through farmland and forest?

    The NCRR’s proposal for commuter rail includes using this line, branching off from the main E-W line at University Station Road and going south to Carrboro/Chapel Hill.

    • Andrew Edmonds

      Ah, I see the general NCRR plan here. STAC’s plan includes the 15/501 corridor LRT.

      Why are NCRR and STAC not on the same page about where a commuter line would travel?

  • Zach

    Honestly, I can’t see light rail in the Triangle working in almost any form. As you mentioned, the jobs and commuters are simply too spread out to travel without multiple transfers, at which point it becomes inconvenient and overly time consuming. And though I have no education in urban planning, I doubt any combination of incentives could turn downtown Chapel Hill (or Durham, or Raleigh) into a dense residential urban core. The suggested stops leave a lot to be desired – no RDU? No UNC Med? – and I can’t imagine the cost to run light rail where it would need to go. Maybe it would make more sense to build a multi-line BRT on major streets?

  • Ocean Railroader

    It looks like to link the two major areas by rail they would need to have some type of interurban light rail streetcar set up. Richmond and Petersburg Virginia had this very same thing were they at one time had to fairly sized streetcar systems in two cities that were 30 miles a part from one another but they built a streetcar interurban line to link both streetcar systems. Light rail could be set up in the same way for these two towns.

  • orulz

    A stop at UNC Hospital is planned. RDU is tricky. Transit service to the airport is desirable: choice riders are most likely to take transit to places where it costs money to park. There are precious few such destinations in the Triangle and RDU is one of them, but I also don’t think it’s appropriate to say “It’s hard to serve RDU with rail so rail is automatically doomed to failure.”

  • Jonathan Parker

    I work in long range planning for Triangle Transit, the primary regional transit planning entity for the region (in cooperation with the region’s *two* MPOs… don’t get me started about that).

    Thanks to Yonah for shining a spotlight our region and our past and current transit planning efforts. Being from Durham and having clearly done of a lot of his homework, I think he has accurately portrayed many of the challenges we have before us… several local transit agencies (with Triangle Transit as the regional provider) that coordinate services, very sprawling land patterns (3rd worst among major metros by some measures) with few geographic barriers for development, 3 counties & 16 municipalities, a variety of relatively small but emerging urban centers, generally abundant parking (with apologies to Chapel Hill), growing, but acceptable levels of congestion (by major metro standards), and a large 7,000-acre, auto-oriented research park near the geographic center of it all.

    Yes, it will be a difficult task to manage all of these different factors and still develop an efficient, growth-shaping regional transit network, but I believe it can–and must–be done. The good news is I think there may be a growing consensus among citizens groups, local officials and business leaders that it’s nearing the time to get on with it for the sake of our social, environmental, and economic future. Aside from our many challenges, we are fortunate to have a very educated populace (some products of our the three major research universities: Duke, NC State, and UNC) as well as a historically robust and stable regional economy (again largely due to the large university presence, which has spun off the aforementioned RTP and local biotechnology and health care sectors) which has driven tremendous economic growth over the past few decades. This growth has it’s pluses and minuses, but more than anything, provides an imperative to move forward as quickly as we can before we allow our quality of life to erode.

    Philosophically, we must have better bus service to reach our to new communities who don’t have transit service today, build up the urban transit markets to support further infill development in preparation for rail later, as well as give the voters–particularly the suburban variety–an immediate benefit from the additional taxes. Still, an expanded bus system by itself is not enough and I agree with Ryan Avent, when he suggests that building a rail system is imperative, particularly in a fast-growing region like ours–even one where many diverse travel markets exist. There does not have to be a one-size fits all approach to the rail program–nor should there be. The most successful rail projects should be implemented first, even if it means starting with a short segment or if federal funding is not available… though I assure you we will work very hard to pursue it!

    Now to the plans:

    So in the short term, with a positive referendum (likely in 2011) the current plans call for increasing local bus service frequencies, add some new local routes, add circulators in a few urban corridors, increase service hours, and continue to add regional express bus services that would touch every municipality in the 3-county region.

    On the rail side, Orulz is correct. Although the MPOs’ Long Range Plan had called for a light rail connection between Durham and Raleigh (the two largest cities), Triangle Transit floated the idea of a commuter rail connection as we began to quantify the station area land use metrics (“transit readiness”) along the 26-mile corridor, the financial impacts of the recession, and the potential to leverage investments in the Southeast High Speed Rail corridor that slices through the region, including Durham, Cary, and Raleigh (the Triangle’s three most populous cities). The April 2009 FRA Stimulus program announcement providing a glimpse of the possibilities, and yesterday’s confirmation that NC will receive $545 million dollars for SESHR confirmed our hopes. Now that SESHR looks considerably closer to becoming a reality than ever, the track capacity improvements it will create in the Durham-Raleigh corridor make a commuter rail connection look even better, so long as we can secure the necessary rights to run *compelling frequencies*–an important point. augmenting the current and future intercity/HSR services. We are calling this complete menu of services, a mingling of commuter, intercity, and HSR, “Express Rail.”

    The implementation of Commuter Rail in this corridor leverages HSR, and also allows us to fairly readily extend the commuter service (probably at more basic service levels initially) to a few of the surrounding suburbs, notably Garner, Clayton, and possibly Wake Forest. On either ends of the region where development is a bit more focused, LRT would weave-together the areas major urban activity centers and neighborhoods…

    On the west side: UNC, East 54 TOD, Meadowmont, Duke, Ninth St, Downtown Durham and East Durham, with several direct connections to Commuter Rail, and one to HSR (Downtown Durham). Though likely not affordable initially, LRT extensions could eventually be made into the core of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and up to UNC’s planned North Campus.

    On the east side LRT would connect Downtown Cary, NC State, Downtown Raleigh, and up to North Raleigh parallel to the heavily traveled & congested US 1 corridor, where there is both little highway expansion opportunity and lots of underused land for redevelopment. Connections to Commuter Rail would be available in several locations for travel to Morrisville, RTP, RDU Airport, and Durham. LRT extensions could be made west of Downtown Cary to Apex, or perhaps just a few miles east of Downtown Raleigh to the WakeMed campus, among the county’s largest employers.

    The plan is by no means set, but that lays out much of the current thinking.

    Especially in a sprawling sunbelt region and with the potential investments described above, transit is not going to be competitive for many of trips, but given the tremendous growth we anticipate (+1.2M in 25 years), I believe the benefits of our ability to drive new growth to several key corridors will gradually accrue and become clear to the residents of our region over time.

  • Jack Slade

    Apparently none of the people in the area have eever heard of Personal Rapid Transit (PRT).

    That is not their fault. It is the fault of a news media system that thinks it is more important to keep the people informed about who is sleeping whith whom, and mention nothing about new technology that can offer improvements and conveniences at much lower costs.

    To the media, what is happening in San Jose, Winona, Sweden, Masdar, and Korea is not worth printing….there are no scandals involved, and it is just technology.

    Jack Slade

  • John W

    This is one of the few instances where PRT might actually make sense – connecting the CR/LRT station with the separated but reasonably dense nodes in the research park (campus). It’s also a cool bit of retro-futuristic tech that the CEOs will undeniably feel fits their go forward more faster image. Aesthetically, the pictures of PRT elevateds going through business parks are certainly the most convincing images on the various websites I’ve seen. And then there’s it’s potential as a film location (not joking – they do pay quite a bit of money).

    Lots of determining factors though. Who pays for untested tech? (at any reasonably large scale or complexity, that is – yes I know about Heathrow, etc – there’s a huge thread elsewhere on this site and no point repeating it). If it’s mostly private sector, that’s great. What about the frequencies for the trains it’ll feed from? If frequencies on those are too low you’ll get crush loads on the PRT (and I don’t care how many people you an transport an hour on PRT – if you know you’ll have to wait, you’ll probably just take your car. And who’s going to purchase loads of PRT vehicles so that the necessary capacity can be reached, only for them to sit idle for most of the rest of the day). If, however, the CR/LRT is relatively frequent throughout the day so there’s a reasonably steady demand, there may be something in it.

    (btw – is it over for Brangelina?)

  • In this case, when there are no large city centers and only about 20 miles maximum distances I think that an area-wide PRT network is the only way of creating a public transit system that has a chance of competing with the car.
    Granted, this would be a larger PRT system than has been designed so far, but the $8bn planned for the rail system will be enough to create 400-800 miles of PRT lines, which would be able to carry out many times more transportation than the rail lines, and at higher mean speeds too.
    As there seems to be no significant rail traffic today, why create such a network at high cost, just to create the type of traffic pattern that PRT is least likely to serve well, when you can have an area wide PRT system with a much better travel experience at a lower total cost?

  • orulz

    AGH. PRT.

    400-800 miles of PRT for $8 billion? Whose snake oil have you been drinking?

    Before this even gets off the ground, an entirely new system would have to be engineered and tested from the ground up, because nothing remotely like this exists anywhere in the world. Ignoring the cost of development (which would be HUGE), there are still huge question marks in terms of reliability and a huge amounts of risk for cost overruns, delays, scope changes, etc. Plus, a total of $2 million per mile might be in the ballpark when we’re talking about the cost of actually constructing the GUIDEWAY itself, but remember there are lots of other costs other than the materials and labor for construction.

    (1) Study (EIS, etc.)
    (2) Engineering / Design
    (3) Stations (PRT promises LOTS of stations to be worthwhile)
    (4) Track switches (Again PRT needs LOTS of track switches; remember most PRT systems are shown as monorail-based to avoid huge land acquisition costs; monorail switches are extremely expensive and complicated)
    (5) Vehicles – remember they need to go at least 50-60 mph to be somewhat competitive with cars
    (6) Control systems – nothing remotely capable of handling a network of this size on an automated basis exists yet; this would take years of development and testing before it’s safe enough for the public to use.
    (7) Land (It’s still needed some places even if it’s a monorail mostly over street ROW

    And you’re in the stratosphere. All told, $8 billion might get us 50 miles of PRT.

    Besides. What’s the point? We already have a HUGE PRT system in the Triangle. It’s called roads and cars.

    Is the light rail system in the STAC plan perfect? Of course not. But is PRT the answer? Hell no. Any dollar spent on PRT is a dollar thrown down a black hole with no hope of any return whatsoever.

    • PRTGuy

      Orluz, you make some good points but also are incorrect in some assumptions.

      You’re correct that there will be significant expenses for studies, engineering, etc.

      Stations can largely be integrated into existing buildings, using their elevators and stairs. All that’s needed is a platform, ticketing, safety doors, etc.

      I’m not aware of any PRT designs that use track switches. Switching is all done from the vehicle. It’s not that expensive.

      Vehicles do not need to go 50-60 mph to be competitive with cars. With off-line stations and non-stop travel, speeds of 30 mph would be faster than the typical trip time with automobiles. With stoplights, congestion, parking, etc., the average trip speed for automobile traffic is in the 20 mph range. With frequent stops, LRT is not much faster.

      Control systems exist that have been used for other applications that have all the underpinnings required for PRT. This is not as big an issue as you may think.

      Depending on system capacity, a PRT system could be built for around $15-20 million per one-way mile. If there are significant land acquisition costs, then it would cost more; however, if there’s room for a streetlamp, there’s probably room for PRT.

      PRT a black hole with no hope of return whatsoever? Really? That’s like saying man will never fly. What state did the first motorized flight take place in? Hmmm.

  • Mike C

    Not wanting to get into a huge debate here, but $8B for 400 miles is $20M/mile, and $8B for 50 miles is $160M/mile. With ULTra PRT’s confirmed cost numbers in the $15-30M range, I think $8B gets closer to 400 than 50 miles.

  • Mike C

    Also, ULTra’s numbers include all costs, including vehicles, guideway, sidings, and stations. And most PRT designs do not have track switching.

  • orulz

    Well, fair enough, I don’t really want to get into a debate about PRT either; after reading more about the ULTra system at Heathrow I’ll admit that it’s a lot more promising than I thought, but there are still a bunch of question marks.

    For one, the ULTra PRT’s cost numbers still only seem to include the construction cost, not the engineering cost nor or the cost of any environmental studies nor land acquisition. These actually constitute a substantial portion of the cost of any transit system.

    Also, the Heathrow system, as-is, with its 25mph speeds, is not likely to adapt well to a cross-regional system with 20+ mile distances like RTP. That is not to say a faster system could not potentially be developed, but that would probably require a heavier-duty (more expensive) guideway and longer headways. Are there any systems under development or testing that can support speeds in the 40-60mph range? What are the theoretical constraints on their operation?

    As lightweight as the elevated Heathrow ULTra guideways seem, they are still somewhat obtrusive, and would not likely be welcomed in most denser urban areas, Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill included. On the ground, they are less obtrusive, but then that raises the question of acquiring rights-of-way. The visual impact of the guideway is less of an issue in a sparse, suburban commercial/industrial area around RTP or RDU.

    Some form of PRT may be in the mix for the eventual, final build-out of transit in the Triangle region. But as I’m sure you’ll admit it’s not a silver bullet to solve all of our mobility issues either.

  • Mike C

    To answer your question, the Taxi2000 system was designed for 45mph, I believe. Taxi2000’s design goal was 1/2 second headways, which would make it a decent capacity system (max 7200 veh per hour on any given line) but that is not yet safety approved. Initial versions of Taxi2000 would likely operate at 2 seconds or more, and only come down with operational experience.

    Taxi2000 lacks a full test track, but they may have one soon (see this). There may be others with >40mph target operating speeds, I don’t know. But note that congested roads might not exceed 25mph at rush times.

    I understand and respect your skepticism regarding PRT, and I agree it’s not a silver bullet. But it merits consideration for some applications. If you’re interested in the current status of PRT (including the criticisms), the Boston Globe did a nice piece a few months ago.

  • orulz

    Another question is, how would people get to PRT stations? How many passengers a day would be required to make a PRT station economical? 4- to 6- unit per acre housing tracts would probably not be dense enough to support a PRT station based on walk-up traffic alone. So presumably, there would be some PRT park-and-ride stations. That further adds to the construction costs because land must be acquired and a parking deck or lot built.

    I guess my main problem with PRT is that they are often sold as a magic solution to the problem of how to have the convenience and efficiency of transit, but still maintain the land use patterns of today. That doesn’t work. Even PRT would probably require denser development and TOD in order to work.

  • Taxi2000’s design goal was 1/2 second headways… Initial versions of Taxi2000 would likely operate at 2 seconds or more, and only come down with operational experience.

    In other words, Taxi2000 believes it can casually increase capacity by a factor of 4 without explaining how.

    In related news, I have a bridge to sell you for real cheap.

  • Mike C

    Orulz, PRT can be implemented in a variety of ways. Sure, it could be used in a sprawling development, and yes, it may require park-and-ride for such applications. But PRT is also flexible in placement of stations, so rather than all stations being on a line, PRT stations could appear anywhere in a 2-dimensional area. So the park-and-ride could be placed where land for parking is cheap, or even alongside existing parking structures.

    But I think it can also work in the TOD model, with local PRT circulators extending the reach of existing trains to neighborhoods further from the line. I also see the possibility that PRT could lead to TOD in transit-sparse areas where cars dominate, by creating an easy-to-use transit system which can draw people out of cars. Once the stranglehold of the automobile is broken, other transit might be more viable. PRT’s ability to draw people from their cars would be central to this approach.

  • Let’s try to keep the discussion here to what has been actually proposed for the Triangle, rather than devolve into a long-ranging discussion of PRT, something we’ve already done on this site.

  • Mike C

    Yes, I’m sorry if I diverted the conversation; I was just answering the questions that Orulz posed. Yonah, feel free to forward Orulz my email address, in case he wants to continue our side discussion privately.

  • orulz

    I actually think it’s not too far-fetched to talk about PRT, at least in the RTP area. But even if we’re not talking PRT, let’s talk about how to get around in the RTP-RDU-Morrisville area.

    The CORE (Center Of the Region Enterprise) is a joint committee with representatives from all the entities that build and plan infrastructure in the heart of the Triangle. These entities include Durham County, Durham City, Wake County, Raleigh, Cary, Morrisville, NCDOT, RDU Airport, RTP, and Triangle Transit. They have studied several possibilities for transit connectors and circulators to link the moderate-density activity centers in the RTP region: (1)(2)(3). Options range from a simple APM connector between the airport terminal and a rail station, to a fancy transit loop at least 10 miles long. Technologies they have considered include people mover, guided bus, dedicated bus roadways, etc.

    Given the enormous investment obviously under consideration here, the distances between the activity centers, the level of activity at each of them, and the technologies already under consideration, I don’t think it would be a stretch to say PRT might find a real niche here. But regardless of the technology, this is not going to be a replacement for a higher-speed, higher capacity line that carries large numbers of peole from downtown Raleigh to downtown Durham

    My question is, regardless of the technology, would such a plan be worth the additional cost over a shuttle bus system like what is already in place? Obviously some whizbang PRT or APM or guided bus would have a better public image, and probably be easier to use, but we’re talking lots of money here.

  • orulz

    Oops, I botched one of the links: (1)

  • Nathanael

    So the Raleigh-Durham corridor might end up FOUR-TRACKED, with two high-speed rail tracks (also carrying some freight) and two light rail tracks?

    The mind boggles. I think commuter rail Raleigh-Durham, with a RTP station in the middle (and shuttle buses therefrom to the rest of RTP) is clearly the way to start. If it starts really filling up and clogging the rails needed for high speed traffic, a parallel light rail spine would then make sense.

  • Ocean Railroader

    It looks like that the NEC Catenary might have to reach this area one day then if high speed rail and commuter lines come though one day.

  • Uninformed

    One thing nobody is talking about is the nature of the people who live in the Triangle. It doesn’t seem there is a critical mass of folks who favor living in the dense environment necessary for mass transit to really work. In other words, the people who live by and large enjoy the suburban sprawl of places like Cary and North Raleigh. Even our most dense neighborhoods are defined by quarter acre lots. For better or worse, people here seem to prefer to live in a subdivision or developments that are segregated and not easily accessible to the rest of the community. Walking to get anywhere, let alone a distance of say a mile to get to a rail stop seems like a foreign concept to our residents.

    People often debate the identity of the Triangle, but our sprawl is very much a part of that identity, and an attractive attribute for many. Mass transit should wait until we have a critical mass of people in this area who are interested in living an urban lifestyle.

    The central question to me is; will building these rail lines attract the critical mass that is not currently present? My opinion is no, but that is just my opinion.

  • Andrew

    We have to start somewhere. If LRT is built now, even in an imperfect arrangement that requires feeder buses now (e.g. in the business park), high-density transit-oriented redevelopment will follow. Of course it needs to be accompanied by major improvements to bus service, but buses are not adequate by themselves. As for those advocating PRT, PRT is a pipe dream that will never be competitive with the car.

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