» 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.