In North Carolina’s Triangle, the Passage of a Sales Tax Increase in Durham is Just the First Step

» 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.

34 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • At first glance, this looks like something that’s workable. As a former Raleigh resident, it’ll be harder for Wake County to pass a similar proposal that could see BRT and a Raleigh-Apex rail route given the anti-transit forces in recent years.

  • Tom Marney

    Re interlining in the BRT proposal… a few years ago, a study was done of a transit corridor connecting Doraville Station and the Cumberland-Galleria area along I-285 in metro Atlanta. Two alternatives were modeled: a light rail line, and a busway that was identical to the light rail line except that direct access from the street network was assumed at the ends of the line– no other interlining despite several at-grade crossings where buses could access the busway, let alone provision for direct access from intersecting freeways and/or the HOV lanes programmed for constrution there at the time. The study found that BRT would be cheaper to build, cheaper to operate, and would carry far more riders. But…

    The only area where light rail bested BRT in the modeling was in terms of reducing auto vehicle miles traveled. Apparently even the paltry provisions for transfer-free access to the busway at its ends were sufficient to significantly increase ridership on express and local bus lines beyond the ends of the corridor. This increased ridership would’ve diverted small amounts of car traffic from several congested roadways, and the increased roadway capacity would’ve been almost entirely consumed by latent demand for auto travel.

    So, it’ not surprising to me that an interlining-friendly BRT alternative in a polycentric place like Durham-Chapel Hill would perform better than a straight-up light rail line.

    • Nathanael

      Trouble is, the projections for BRT never come true. Is it the rail bias among passengers? The inherent schedule unreliablity of merging mixed-traffic-running lines into the BRT corridor? I don’t know, but it seems most studies which make BRT seem good fail to take one or the other into account.

  • Buckeyeman

    I was glad to read in one of your footnotes that the ant-streetcar issue on the ballot there lost. I guess as long as voters have a say in whether or not any kind of rail transit gets built, we’ll always have to be extra vigilant in dealing with these anti-raill againsters. In Cincinnati, the pro-dtretcar forces there had best be alert to anything the ant-streetcar forces may yet try to pull in their hell-hot obsession and dtermination to keep such an obviously worthwhile project from coming to pass. No proponent of any kind of rail transportation should EVER take anything for granted, ever.

  • aw

    Maybe someone more familiar with the local geography and the projects could answer these questions for me…

    Does the proposed route of the commuter rail correspond to any current Amtrak routes?

    Does the corridor follow the proposed route of SEHSR, and if so, is there any an opportunity for some synergistic development?

    • Nathanael

      The proposed Commuter Rail route is in fact on the North Carolina Railroad tracks, which is where Amtrak’s (state-supported) Piedmont and Carolinian run, and which is also part of the planned SEHSR.

      It’s also getting large incremental upgrades right now from the ARRA money, as part of NC’s long-term high speed passenger rail plan; most of this is double-tracking, curve straightening, and better crossing warnings, with some grade separations.

      (SEHSR is supposed to run from Washington Union Station along the route of VRE through Fredericksburg, along Amtrak’s route to Richmond Main St. Station, along a rebuilt connection from there to Petersburg, VA, along a long rebuilt segment from there to Raleigh, and then on the North Carolina Railroad tracks to the Winston-Salem area and then to Charlotte. So far the NCRR tracks have gotten most of the upgrades, the VRE section has gotten some, and the rest of the Virginia segment has gotten nothing.)

  • Really? $650m for a rail line that already sees 3 or 4 passenger trains a day? There even appear to be several alternate routes for freight.

  • Steven

    @aw:

    Yes, the entire commuter rail corridor parallels Amtrak routes. Specifically, The Carolinian runs the entire Garner-Durham route, the Piedmont runs from Downtown Raleigh through West Durham, and the Florida services run between Garner and Cary. The map indicates current Amtrak stops in Raleigh, Cary, and Durham.

    SEHSR parallels the Wake Light Rail line from “NE Center” through Downtown Raleigh, before joining the commuter rail corridor from Downtown Raleigh through West Durham. It will have the same three stops as Amtrak.

    There will be opportunities (and are plans) for development at the downtown stations, possibly including downtown Cary, but SEHSR should only interact with light rail at those three stations.

    • Tim E

      I know it is a play on wording, but rephrasing the SEHSR as an extension NEC from DC to Charolette seems like a better approach, both on the marketing side and political side. Even Congressman Mica has given up on his idea of wanting to privatize the NEC and is willing to direct funds towards the corridor as America’s preferred HSR route.

      I really see California’s HSR floundering in the near future and LaHood scrambling to reprogram #3 billionm in HSR funds early 2012. The winnters will be NEC (probably desperately needed bridge projects that need to go forward), Midwest (a combination of small projects from Porter Junction to a Chicago/Milwaukee investment) and maybe, if Virginia and NC DOT’s play it right, more investment along the Amtrak routes. Maybe even purchase a rail route to secure the corridor.

      • Bob

        While I certainly hope North Carolina is the beneficiary of more cash for intercity pax rail the new republican legislature that was elected last year has demonstrated their reluctance (with new legislation) to accept federal funds for rail improvements. I suspect this played a role in North Carolina’s lack of success with the Florida reallocations.

        Despite all that NC really needs to get the Raleigh-Richmond shortcut going AND get started on the downtown Charlotte station (the current station is limiting business travel)

      • Nathanael

        “I know it is a play on wording, but rephrasing the SEHSR as an extension NEC from DC to Charolette seems like a better approach, both on the marketing side and political side. ”

        Problem is that it has been very hard to get Virginia to do its part, especially south of the VRE region. It doesn’t look much like an extension when there’s a big gap.

  • bullcity76

    Great breakdown Yonah! I agree their are some issues that will discussed over the years but getting the local funding (for Durham County…still waiting on Orange and mostly on Wake) is HUGE!

    As far as commuting patterns, I hope you haven’t been gone long enough to know the biggest traffic jams happen during rush hour on I-40 between Wake and Durham Cos. I’ve seen traffic reports from RTP Regional Partnership that show the huge commuting pattern between the counties. The RTP business area is suburban oriented but still represents 38k employees who live throughout the Triangle. The goal is to provide opportunities for some of them to live near transit stations.

    I personally think being a Polycentric Metro area is a benefit towards a new transit system in a growing area. Downtowns in large cities become congested with car and rail traffic due to their hub-and-spoke architecture. I would compare the Triangle more to the “Southwest Airlines” architecture…a little more distributed with less congestion and lower costs.

  • Gerry

    Durham has stated that they will not levy the tax unless Wake OR Orange approves it. (not AND)

    • Thanks for that information. I have updated the post.

      • WP

        Actually, what the Durham Board of County Commissioners said and voted for in June is this: they would not ask TTA to levy the tax for a year or perhaps longer and they would wait to see what happens in both Wake and Orange counties. They did not say that Durham would not levy the sales tax unless Wake and/or Orange also approved it. It is important to note that the Durham BOCC preserved their options for levy of the sales tax and did not make it contingent on positive action by Orange or Wake.

  • alexjonlin

    It’s pretty incredible to see even small, spread-out metropolitan areas across the US building rail transit. In 20 years, the US might look a whole lot more like Europe.

  • ben

    Very exciting. Perhaps it’s worth the effort in PA to get a half cent tax increase on a referendum…

  • Andrew

    Doesn’t mentioning the fact that a BRT interlining systems is cheaper and will attract more riders so far down in the post feel a bit like burying the lead? Maybe open BRT systems are simply much much more able to respond to the urban form of a place like the Triangle (and, by extension, the bulk of the US outside isolated exceptions in New York, Chicago, etc).

    Why would those who support high quality transit not opt for a system that better serves the demand? Even if you think investing a massive sum ($3.5 Billion) is the right amount, you can simply get more coverage, or more service, on a BRT system as compared to a rail based system. And while there is some evidence that, all else being equal, rail systems attract slightly more riders than a rubber-wheel based system, in this case all else would not be equal. Point to point service at higher frequency would doubtless trump the mythological rail mode specific bump.

    • Marcella D.

      Busways represent a service degradation. Unless there are 100% physical segregation, I for instance favor mandatory seat belts on ALL bus passengers to increase safety. Buses are a lesser solution. Better have nothing than have buses, unless they are only used for last-mile connections.

    • Nathanael

      “Point to point service at higher frequency would doubtless trump the mythological rail mode specific bump.”

      It doesn’t. In every case study, point-to-point service at higher frequency is not really viable, because it costs a fortune (and creates massive congestion on the trunk) to provide higher frequency on so many point-to-point routes. Therefore, you get point-to-point service at LOWER frequency, and higher frequency only on the TRUNK line, at which point… it’s worse than rail.

      The benefits of being able to spread out “branch lines” at the tail end of a trunk bus route would be real if there were no traffic, but they are routinely destroyed by the schedule delays caused by those branch routes, causing the trunk to run erratically. (Yes, the same can happen with poorly designed train routes.)

  • Jon Bell

    In reference to your footnote on “suburban Cleveland”: the linked article refers to Lorain County and Trumbull County.

    Lorain County is arguably part of the Cleveland suburban area, but Trumbull County definitely is not. Trumbull is part of the Youngstown metropolitan area. (I grew up in Warren, the Trumbull County seat.)

    According to the following editorial from the Youngstown Vindicator, at stake was an on-demand service that was established by the city of Niles in 2003:

    http://www.vindy.com/news/2011/nov/07/need-for-public-transportation-is-eviden/

    Niles-Trumbull Transit:

    http://www.thecityofniles.com/transit.htm

    The only other public transit service in Trumbull County, as far as I know, is a fixed-route service from Youngstown to Niles and Warren, operated every two hours by the Western Reserve Transit Authority (#39 Warren Express)

    http://www.wrtaonline.com/

  • Louis

    Something you didn’t mention in your analysis was the decision to include immediate upgrades to existing transit service as part of the proposal. For example, the Triangle Transit Authority currently does not offer Sunday bus service to the airport. With the passage of the transit tax, they’ll be able to do so, starting next year.

    By including immediate and long-term transit upgrades, even skeptics of rail plans (which might include current bus riders) are inclined to support the transit tax. And, if the rail plan ends up not being feasible, the county can still use this revenue stream to support bus service, either through expanding access/trip frequency or reducing direct fare costs.

  • Tom Marney

    One thing that strikes me about Charlotte is that buses are freaking everywhere! It’s not unusual to see signs four four different routes at stops on major thoroughfares. Whatever Durham ends up doing, expanding bus service is a good start. and… perhaps the response of the community to expanded service will provide some guidance as to which way to go on the fixed guideway question.

    I remember what happened with the Metro rapid service in Los Angeles: speeds were increased by 20%, ridership increased nearly twice that much. How fortunate that Metro rapid didn’t require a vote.

    • Wad

      @Tom, the Rapids weren’t that big of a miracle in L.A.

      For one thing, most of the Rapids had existed as limited-stop bus lines, so they were already in existence. Metro only counts Rapid ridership as a discrete line; as a limited, they were branches of the local trunk line and the ridership was folded into the local. So, Line 720 carries about 38,000 now, but when it was Line 320 prior to 2000, trunk Line 20 ridership was 55,000.

      The ridership gains were minuscule, for L.A.’s standards, anyway. Metro has long had the second-busiest bus system in the U.S., and there were well more than a million boardings a weekday before the Rapids came along. It would be hard to isolate the bus ridership gains solely due to the Rapids — primarily because what they had done was add off-peak service to limiteds that were rush-hour only. The gains would have had to be during those times.

  • Tom Marney

    That’s not what the research I’ve read says.

    http://www.nbrti.org/docs/pdf/WestStart_BRT_Ridership_Analysis_Final.pdf

    i don’t want this thread to turn into another LRT vs. BRT P*****g contest, Durham isn’t LA, and a busway isn’t what Metro Rapid (for instance) is. Still, Yonah mentioned the ridership potential of a busway over LRT, and I’d like to see Durham (and everywhere else!) with the transit system that will best suit its needs.

  • If as you say the State of North Carolina 100% owns the tracks in question, they can say to the freight rail contractor that, yes you WILL allow tram trains on those publicly owned tracks once PTC is installed, or we’ll find another contractor. Of course the wild card is whether the State is smart enough and technically progressive to do so…

    • Bob

      ^ Yes the state owns the tracks, but they are in year 8(?) of a 50 year lease to Norfolk Southern. NS will accede to demands from the state — in 42 years….

      • jim

        Probably not. NS can always threaten to send their trains through Winston-Salem instead. They did during the lease renegotiation (which became very acrimonious).

        The right of way, though, is very wide (200ft IIRC) and additional tracks could be added alongside the ones that NS uses. I believe that the lease explicitly allows the state to add capacity but restricts the state from allowing other freight carriers on the right of way.

      • Owen

        According to Wikipedia, the new lease was signed in 1999 and is for a 15 year term (renewable for 30 more years after that.) So, renewal is coming up in two years. I am not sure what the terms of renewal are.

    • The FRA won’t allow tram-trains. It’s making noises about continuing with its present regulations and just expecting agencies to engage in costly waiver applications each time they want to modernize.

  • Christopher

    This looks like a good plan for a transit system in the Triangle. I was commuting daily between Durham and Cary this summer. Often I looked over at CSX’s (former Durham Southern) lightly-used freight line and thought about how nice it would be to get off a train there and walk to my internship/job just outside RTP. I’m a native Virginian, and am proud of NC and VA for being proactive with rail.

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