» A 30-year plan to bring increased bus service and three new rail lines to the Research Triangle gets off to a promising start with an election in Durham.
In 2000, North Carolina’s two largest metropolitan regions each planned big transit improvements, and each had received preliminary approval to do so from the Federal Transit Administration.The Triangle’s leaders wanted to build a diesel multiple unit-powered regional rail line connecting Durham and Raleigh while Charlotte’s elected officials planned an electric light rail line linking downtown with its southern suburbs.
Ten years later, Charlotte’s Blue Line has been up and running for almost four years, attracting higher than expected ridership. The Triangle’s efforts were flummoxed in November 2005 by an FTA ruling that the regional rail project was not cost effective, and the project was cancelled.
Yet the passage yesterday of a half-cent sales tax increase dedicated to transit in Durham County offers strong evidence that the region’s electorate is ready to invest in new public transportation options — the referendum passed with a large 60% majority in approval. Durham’s endorsement of the transit improvement program, like similar efforts in cities from Los Angeles to Denver, provides clear evidence that voters are willing and even excited to pay higher taxes in exchange for tangible improvements in transportation.* If in the U.S. Congress future funding for mobility remains tenuous at best, local level support for such policies is clear.
For the Triangle, this is the first step towards the completion of what will not only be a vast upgrade over current transit offerings in the region but also a significant improvement on the 2000 regional rail plan.
Triangle leaders have learned from Charlotte’s success. Realizing that the FTA would be unwilling to commit to a project without a stronger demonstration of local funding efforts, politicians pushed the North Carolina State Assembly to allow counties to submit sales tax increases to their voters, an option that had been reserved for Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County until 2009. Charlotte’s half-cent sales tax provided a quarter of the light rail line’s cost, while the Triangle’s 2000 plan could cover less than 10% of costs with local revenues, which came from a tax on rental cars and vehicle registrations.
Durham (population 270,000) is the first of the three Triangle core counties to put a transit sales tax referendum up to voters; Wake County (whose 900,000 population includes the cities of Raleigh and Cary) and Orange County (130,000 inhabitants, many of whom are in Chapel Hill) are likely to follow up next year now that the transit plan has received its first public backing. Each county will receive improvements roughly in proportion to the taxes locals pay; if one county’s voters reject the referendum, the other counties will keep their revenues and continue work on their own projects. (Update: Durham County Board members may have said they will not levy the tax unless Wake
and or Orange County does as well.)
The implementation plan, developed by Triangle Transit
the Triangle Regional Transit Program, will be implemented over the next thirty years as long as tax revenues come in as expected. It will offer big improvements in bus service soon and new rail links beginning a decade or so from now.**
Upgrading the region’s bus network is a top priority and is the ideal first step towards a big investment in fixed-guideway transit. Charlotte, which substantially increased bus services once its half-cent sales tax was approved in 1998, more than doubled its daily transit ridership over ten years, mostly thanks to bus riders (though the light rail project helped as well). Some of the $17.2 million in sales tax receipts Durham expects to collect annually beginning in April 2013
2012 will immediately go to 25,000 additional annual bus service hours, with another 25,000 new hours planned by 2015 2013. This represents a 28% increase over current service levels and it will allow 15-minute peak frequencies on several routes. Similar improvements are planned for Orange and Wake Counties if and when their voters approve their respective referenda. (The Town of Chapel Hill wants to use some of its future funds to pay for a bus rapid transit project along Martin Luther King Boulevard, its primary north-sout thoroughfare, by 2017.)
In the meantime, Durham and the rest of the region will continue their work on the long-term fixed-guideway rail projects that are the headliners here. In the 2000 plan, the whole point was the intercity link between Raleigh and Durham; in the past few years, Triangle planners decided to realign — and broaden — their focus. Not only would a commuter rail line running at limited frequencies be developed to connect the two big downtowns by 2018, but two light rail lines sharing parts of the same corridor will run from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to Durham and from suburban Cary to northeast Raleigh, via that city’s downtown.
Unlike the regional rail plan, which would have had twelve stations spread across 28 miles of service — more like commuter rail than urban service — the two light rail lines will have a total of 38 stations along 35 miles of service, meaning most people along the route will be within walking distance of a stop. In addition, the light rail lines will run partially in the existing railroad right-of-way (as would have the regional rail plan) but also within street medians in some urban sections, such as the newly developed Erwin Road near Duke University Hospital and N.C. 54 in and around Chapel Hill’s new urbanist Meadowmont development. Street alignments are generally cheaper and more pedestrian accessible than their peers in independent rights-of-way.
Together, these projects would attract roughly 32,000 daily riders by 2035 at a cost of $3.5 billion, thus making it far easier and more reliable to get around these cities by transit.
Instead of rushing to complete the rail connections as soon as possible, the plan is designed to build up a reserve fund for capital costs and slowly pass through the FTA’s grant process. This is an appropriate response to unexpected changes in the economy and the delays that are likely to be encountered when dealing with Washington. Thus the 2025 completion dates for the light rail projects may seem far off but they are realistic.
In order to sponsor these projects, regional officials are counting on the passage of the sales tax referenda in each of the three Triangle counties. They will also use a $10 vehicle registration fee and rental car tax (both already in place), as well as 50% capital program support from Washington and 25% support from the State of North Carolina (roughly what Charlotte received for its light rail project). Collectively, the three counties would locally raise more than $2 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars by 2035 (Durham County, for instance, will collect about $730 million), enough to pay for the local share of all of these projects and the operations costs not only of the rail lines but also of the improved bus network.
Compared with the 2000 program, this is a far more comprehensive set of improvements that will do more to change the transit access of the typical resident of the area — especially since much of the funding is designed for bus service, which was ignored in the previous plan. Despite the fact that they will attract new riders into the transit system, the rail services as currently proposed are not perfect. One hopes that the long planning process will allow further refinements that ensure that the program is as cost-effective and traveler-oriented as possible.
The biggest trouble with the plan, like the previous one, is that it attempts to impose what is effectively radial transit on a multipolar region whose most prominent employment center is actually a series of isolated office blocks in the zone between Durham and Raleigh, the Research Triangle Park (RTP). Though RTP has been the region’s growth generator for decades, its radically suburban form makes it difficult to envision efficient transit there.
Meanwhile, there is relatively little commuting between Raleigh and Durham. The cities are too far apart to be true suburbs of one another; most people who work in Downtown Durham live in Durham County and most people who work in Downtown Raleigh live in Wake County. This means that the $650 million commuter rail line expected to pass through RTP and between Durham and Raleigh will have limited value — this was, after all, the problem with the 2000 regional rail proposal.
For the same reasons, the new focus on light rail connecting Chapel Hill to Durham and Wake County’s suburbs to Downtown Raleigh is much more reasonable. There has been significant growth in both residential and worker populations in downtown Durham and Raleigh since 2000, so there is both demand and interest in getting into these cities more easily. Connections to Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University, which have a collective student body and staff of more than 100,000 (not including their medical centers), are likely to make the rail services quite popular, especially for people who live nearby but cannot afford parking in expensive university lots.
Nonetheless, the access provided to the respective downtowns is weak according to current plans. While Durham’s downtown will be within half a mile of two stops, no station will be directly next to the city center; in Raleigh, a lively debate this summer over the appropriate alignment for rail through downtown resulted in a compromise that puts some
much of the business district a full mile away from the nearest station. Meanwhile, while the UNC Hospital is at the terminus of the proposed Durham-Chapel Hill light rail line, the main sections of the University and Chapel Hill’s downtown are both about a mile away. These could be fatal flaws in terms of attracting ridership.
Just as problematic is the choice of light rail for the Durham-to-Chapel Hill corridor. The alternatives analysis completed for the line suggests that a true bus rapid transit alternative with an independent guideway would actually attract more total riders at a far lower cost, with only slightly slower travel times. How is this possible, when studies have shown that more commuters will ride rail than bus when similar services are offered? Because the analysis included the possibility of interlining local bus routes onto the fixed-guideway for parts of their route (see map below from the study). This would effectively make travel faster and more reliable even for people whose origins and destinations are not directly along the fixed guideway line.
But local officials have recommended light rail, primarily because of its perceived transit-oriented development potential. This may be a short-sighted decision, since it denies the conclusion that overall transit ridership would be higher with an interlined system. But it also reflects the fact that the route includes several stations in greenfields (at Leigh Village and Gateway) that are poised for significant growth if developers heed the call. Would they do so with a BRT system?
One additional point: If the commuter rail project and light rail projects are completed, they should be developed jointly, not independently. The current proposal recommends four rail tracks in some sections of the Durham-to-Raleigh corridor to allow for two light rail tracks and two shared between the commuter rail line, Amtrak, and freight trains. The section of line between the Ninth Street and Alston Avenue Stations in Durham, for instance, would require the installation of two new light rail tracks and a new commuter rail track (there is currently only one track there). This is overkill considering the proposed train frequencies (maximum 10-minute headways) and will cost more than is necessary.
With the advent of positive train control, the physical separation into different corridors between light rail and freight trains will no longer be necessary. Were the Triangle granted a waiver from the current Federal Railroad Administration rules, it could use tram-train vehicles for its light rail routes and use the same tracks as the commuter rail, thus reducing the necessary expenditures in the shared portions of the line.
Despite these objections, the overall transit plan for the Triangle appears mostly well thought-through. The light rail routes would run through the densest sections of the area and would stop at most major destinations. For a quickly growing region with few public transportation options today, that’s great news.
Thanks to the efforts of Durham’s citizens yesterday, the plan is also actually fundable. Simply proposing a tax cannot be enough to have it approved, of course. Like other cities that have passed transit taxes, Durham benefited from the near-universal support from public officials and the creation of an active supporter group promoting a clear, exciting plan. Wake and Orange Counties will need similar efforts to make the full regional plan possible.***
Bottom image: Interlining BRT on Durham-Chapel Hill high capacity transit project, from Our Transit Future
Update, 11 November 2011: I was contacted by an official who noted that the tram-train idea would be impossible considering current rules of the North Carolina Railroad (a private company 100% owned by the state), which owns the track. The company has so far been unwilling to consider having light rail run along its tracks. Thus the issue here is not only the FRA but also the opinions of the host railroad.
* This is apparently not true in suburban Cleveland, where two separate efforts to maintain bus service were roundly defeated in votes yesterday. But it was true in Vancouver, Washington, where voters endorsed a sales tax for transit, and in Cincinnati, where an effort to block work on the streetcar was ignored.
** Though the rail system will be developed by Triangle Transit, a regional authority that operates intercity buses, Cary, Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh each have their own bus services that at least for now will remain separate. These agencies will receive proportional tax funds to improve operations and will be expected to coordinate with the rail services once they are running.
*** Feel free to blame the length of this article on the fact that I am a native of Durham.