CHAPEL HILL - The light-rail system in the Orange-Durham transit plan is crucial to concentrating economic and residential growth around its stations and limiting sprawl, supporters say.
For now, the proposed 17.3-mile light-rail route from UNC Hospitals to Durham would primarily serve universities and medical centers. But in 25 years, supporters say, 175,000 people will call Orange County home, 400,000 will live in Durham, and UNC will operate two campuses and a vast medical complex. Without several transit options, state and regional planners predict gridlock on every major highway.
But others think light rail is just the wrong choice for Orange County, especially since only 4.3 miles will serve southern Chapel Hill and theres no stated plan for a direct link to Research Triangle Park or Wake County.
Why spend $662 million $104.6 million in local money, plus state and federal funds on a $1.4 billion rail system that most of the people paying for it may never use, they ask.
Bonnie Hauser, president of the rural community group Orange County Voice, said the plan primarily benefits Durham, UNC and Duke and that they should pay for it. Orange County residents would be better served by spending local money on expanded bus service and more bus rapid transit routes until a greater need for light rail exists, she said.
Our demographics are changing, our density is shifting, and our commuters are going to RTP and Raleigh. So why are we investing in a train to Durham? she said.
Patrick McDonough, Triangle Transits senior transportation planner, said the light rail project is a get-started plan that will link to other areas as density grows. None will be viable if we dont get started in the places where we are today, he said.Big Bang Theory
Light rail gets the most bang for the buck now by serving the areas top employers, McDonough said. Between them, UNC and Duke University and their medical centers employ nearly 50,000 people and educate roughly 42,000 students.
U.S. Census data shows the Triangle Durham, Wake and Orange counties had 969,387 residents in 2000 and 1.3 million in 2010. It was the second fastest-growing region in the country, and officials expect that 34 percent growth to continue. That means at least 2.2 million people by 2035, nearly half of them in Wake County, demographics experts predict.
Chapel Hills historical growth rate has been a consistent 1 percent to 1.5 percent since the late 1940s and 1950s, said David Bonk, the towns long-range transportation planning manager.
At a rate of 1 percent a year, people lured by the towns quality of life could grow the current population of 58,011 to at least 71,354 by 2035. With that same rate, unincorporated Orange County could grow to 71,160, and Carrboro to 24,465.
At this point, Chapel Hill alone has received or approved more than 4,400 new homes, mostly in the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard corridor. Other areas with large residential potential are N.C. 54, downtown Chapel Hill and U.S. 15-501 South to Chatham County. Carrboro has another 756 approved homes, although the economy has put some projects on hold.
Bonk said towns, locally and nationally, are trying to serve their two biggest population groups retiring baby boomers and young millennials who dont always want to depend on cars. Local planning documents reflect that desire by promoting business, entertainment and residential hubs, greenway connections and transit alternatives.
Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County have been built around defined limits, officials said. But the towns have very few big tracts of land left, and theyre pushed to use those parcels for commercial projects, leaving the rest to redevelopment and infill.
The transit plan benefits the county by slowing sprawl and preserving farmland, said Orange County Commissioners Chairwoman Bernadette Pelissier. Thats an important part of the countys economic system, too, she said.A regional view
There has been some disagreement over whether the proposed light rail line should follow N.C. 54, as currently planned, or U.S. 15-501 between Chapel Hill and Durham.
Aaron Nelson, executive director of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, said Orange and Durham counties should take a regional view and not hold too terribly fast to what those borders are.
While U.S. 15-501 has a lot of existing economic development and redevelopment potential, it wasnt built out with light rail in mind, Nelson said. There would be many challenges to placing electric rail cars there, among them the lack of available space for stations, as well as easy, safe pedestrian access, he said.
N.C. 54 was and is continuing to be developed with transit in mind, he said. In Chapel Hill, for example, East 54 was built for transit, with the proposed rail line running between its condominiums and Finley Golf Course.
Targeted growth is vital to a successful transportation network and securing federal grant funding, local leaders said. Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said its a matter of seeing how one decision can affect other pieces of the puzzle rather than seeking specific outcomes.
Bonk cited downtown Chapel Hill as another good example of transit-oriented development, while U.S. 15-501 between Chapel Hill and Durham is a bad example, with long, paved stretches separating strip mall shopping centers, jobs and homes.
U.S. 15-501, south of Chapel Hill, isnt designed to make the best use of transit either, Bonk said. Southern Village and Obey Creek, as proposed, are transit-friendly compact, mixed-use developments, but the Wal-Mart opening next year on the Chatham County line will be a traditional retail destination with a big parking lot. Further south, strip-mall shopping is starting to line the road to Pittsboro.
(Southern Chapel Hill) is at a severe disadvantage primarily because there is a premium on parking that minimizes the need for transit, its not surrounded by dense residential areas, and its not designed to promote walking, Bonk said.