What do you do when the conductor is yelling "All Aboard!" and you're not sure you want to go where the train will be taking you?
The Orange County Board of Commissioners faces just such a dilemma.
By next month, it is being asked to approve a transit plan that over the next two decades would cost at least $371 million to build, $185 million to operate, increase Orange County debt by $23 million and put a tax increase on the ballot in November to help pay for it.
The plan, called the Draft Bus and Rail Investment Plan in Orange County, was developed by the regional public transportation organization Triangle Transit (TT). When combined with sister plans TT developed for Durham and Wake counties, trains will connect parts of Durham with parts of Raleigh and parts of Durham with parts of Chapel Hill. It will also expand the current bus service to connect some of the areas away from the rail line.
The Orange County commissioners are under a lot of pressure.
Last year, Durham County approved its plan and voters there passed the tax to support it. Since Durham won't move forward without a partner and Wake County is taking its time, Orange County is on the spot to get on board.
Offering alternatives to ease traffic is a laudable goal, provided they are attractive enough to do the job and as cost-effective as a publicly subsidized program can be.
Those are just some of the issues the Orange County commissioners are grappling with before signing off on the plan and its tax increases.
Other concerns include making sure all county residents benefit equitably from the enhanced transit, assessing whether the plan allows for sufficient flexibility to deal with future growth patterns, evaluating the county's economic development return on investment, and determining what happens if Federal funding isn't available.
Here's a brief discussion of what the commissioners should consider:
The light rail train will probably get the most scrutiny since it accounts for almost all the capital costs but serves a relatively small area in Orange County.
The line will run from downtown Durham to UNC Hospital, intending in Orange County to alleviate traffic on the N.C. 54 entrance to Chapel Hill.
The question that needs to be answered is, from an Orange County perspective, whether that area is better served by rail or bus?
TT compared two bus routes with the proposed train. Both bus plans were expected to attract higher ridership with only slightly longer travel times, have significantly less capital costs and also be cheaper to operate.
So why is a train being recommended?
According to the report, it is because a train will connect better regionally and offer more economic development opportunity.
Unfortunately, Durham County receives those benefits much more so than Orange County.
The Chapel Hill train is not expected to be a regional connector outside Durham. Regarding return on investment, only four or five of the train's stops are in Orange County (depending on the final route).
They are located in areas that are largely built out, or can't be, so most of the economic development that often follows train tracks will happen in Durham.
In contrast, if buses are used instead of trains, Orange County could afford to nearly triple the new bus hours offered countywide.
Using buses has one more decided advantage. Once a train track is laid it can't be changed. But bus routing can be modified at any time to adapt to shifts in population and traffic patterns.
Since most of Orange County's population growth will not be around the 2.89 miles of the proposed train track in its borders, flexibility offered by buses is a big benefit.
In short, the overall plan may achieve regional goals from the perspective of TT, but the Orange County commissioners have an obligation to maximize the return to its tax paying constituents.
To do so, they should ask TT to flesh out an all-bus plan.
How much more service could be offered to other parts of the county not fortunate enough to live near the N.C. 54 corridor with the savings from using buses instead of a train?
There's one more reason to create an all bus plan now, before a decision is made.
Federal funding for the train is far from a sure thing; buses may be the only option.
That scenario should be seen before committing to move forward with a 20-year tax increase funded plan.
Once a plan and tax increase is approved, the tax dollars flow directly to Triangle Transit.
The train will have left the station.
So now is the time for the county to continue asking hard questions and request real options to decide whether the entire county is best served with the plan as currently drafted.