CHAPEL HILL - By 2035, the Triangle will be home to more than 2.1 million people trying to get to work, school and other destinations using crowded highways and byways.
A two-part bus and light rail transportation plan – and a half-cent sales tax to help fund it – is the key to controlling and directing the effects of future growth, regional leaders say.
At its heart, the plan is an economic one, laying the foundation for a network of dense residential and commercial corridors. A side benefit is giving residents and visitors another way to go places – potentially with less congestion and air pollution.
“We’ve got growth coming,” says Wib Gulley, general counsel for Triangle Transit, a former state senator and Durham mayor. “The real question is how we accommodate those folks – either through sprawl or high-density corridors.”
While most experts agree the economic goals are central to the plan, not everyone thinks it will have a significant effect on congestion and pollution.
Chapel Hill transportation planner David Bonk said there aren’t any definite numbers yet – or a method for evaluating the plan’s potential. But even if it doesn’t directly cut congestion, the light rail could have an indirect effect by freeing up other heavily-traveled corridors. Many Chapel Hill area drivers use alternate routes now to avoid N.C. 54, he said.
“The benefit may not be in the end that actual congestion is reduced, but that it gives people other options to avoid the congestion,” Bonk said.Big price tag
The plan’s costs are extraordinary – $1.4 billion for a 17.3-mile light-rail line that in 2026 could link UNC and its hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke University, the medical center and Alston Avenue in Durham – and roughly $14.44 million each year to pay for operating and maintaining it.
The local leg is part of a planned 57-mile light and commuter rail network connecting Orange and Durham counties to Research Triangle Park, Raleigh, Cary, Apex and Wake Forest. The plan doesn’t include Carrboro, or Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
The second part of the plan – expanded bus service – will be more immediate. In Orange County, the capital cost is estimated at nearly $50 million, with annual operating and maintenance costs of roughly $4.6 million.
Area leaders have cobbled together a mix of 25 percent local, 25 percent state and 50 percent federal monies to pay for light rail. The bus plan would use 80 percent federal dollars and the rest in state and local funding.
Orange County residents will decide in early voting beginning Thursday through Election Day, Nov. 6, whether to pay a half-cent sales tax (5 cents on a $10 purchase) for the new services.
State lawmakers gave Durham, Orange and Wake counties permission to add the tax in the 2009 Congestion Relief and Intermodal Transport Fund Act. Durham County voters passed a half-cent sales tax last year to raise roughly $625 million by 2035; Wake County Commissioners decided not to hold a sales tax referendum.
The tax won’t apply to food, medicine, health care, housing or gas. But it does ensure that visitors and commuters from other counties who add to local congestion also pay, Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said.Flexible plans
Orange County’s share of the light rail price tag is based on the 4.3 miles of the system in southern Chapel Hill. The local cost is about $104.6 million, with $3.5 million each year in operation and maintenance costs. Durham County will pay $1.05 billion to build around 13 more light-rail miles and $11.3 million for annual operations and maintenance.
Local leaders also approved a $10 increase in the vehicle registration fee to pay for existing bus services. An extra $7 for Orange County will bring in $22.5 million through 2035; $3 will be added to Triangle Transit’s existing $5 fee to pay for the increasing cost of its services.
Residents will see immediate results in the expanded bus routes, more frequent stops, consistent hours, and night and weekend service. The plan adds routes to regional bus service, too, including an express bus connecting Mebane, Hillsborough and Durham.
No state or federal funding has been secured yet, but Triangle Transit has applied for the Federal Transportation Administration’s New Starts program for capital projects. One requirement is that local land-use plans support growth along corridors with multiple transportation options.
If state or federal funding falls through, Bonk said the plan could be postponed until they find funding or make another plan. Kleinschmidt said one idea is to use sales tax and vehicle fee revenues to add more bus service – including bus rapid transit on major highways.Step by step
For now, only one bus rapid transit line is planned – on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, from Eubanks Road to UNC Hospitals. The $24.5 million project is five to 10 years away, with a tentative start date in 2019.
Hillsborough will see big changes in 2015, when a long-planned, $8.9 million Amtrak rail station would be built. The station, near the intersection of Churton Street and U.S. 70-A, would be part of a mixed-use development, possibly with police and fire stations, a civic arts center, businesses and apartments.
The light rail system is the last part of the plan and won’t be built until the money is in place, officials said. Construction could begin by 2020, with an inaugural run set for 2026.
The trains would run along an overhead electric guidewire, either on a fixed track or city streets. The trains would travel up to 55 mph, stopping at 17 stations near major shopping, education and employment areas. The entire run, including stops, could take about 35 minutes, and weekday trains would run 18 hours a day.
The system should show the potential for 1,000 boardings a day to qualify for funding, Triangle Transit officials said. They anticipate exceeding 14,000 daily boardings by 2035.