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Mark Zimmerman: Light rail plan off the tracks

November 11, 2013 

A commuter’s worst nightmare must go something like this. You’re standing on the station platform, needing desperately to get somewhere, staring down the long, straight track that seems to stretch to infinity. Waiting, waiting, waiting, for a train that never comes.

The folks at Triangle Transit may soon start feeling this way as support for a regional rail network has faded while barriers to our limited system loom larger.

It was only a year ago that the mood was euphoric. Transit-supportive Orange County voters had followed Durham County’s lead and approved a sales tax increase dedicated to transportation. The county commissioners then voted to relinquish control of those tax revenues to Triangle Transit, which planned to spend the bulk of the funds on building a train between Durham and UNC Hospitals. Slowly the pieces were falling in place to bring trains to the Triangle.

What a difference a year makes.

After the Durham and Orange approvals, all eyes turned to the missing piece, Wake County, to follow suit. Pressure built on its commissioners to add a sales tax to the ballot so the full area plan could move forward.

Instead, Wake questioned the wisdom of putting so much money into an inflexible rail system serving such a limited area, especially since the trains would be decades away from being built.

Critics of a train-centric future were bolstered when two very different sources – an influential Independent Weekly columnist and the prestigious Regional Transportation Alliance business coalition – touted the benefits of using Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in precedence over trains to more quickly, efficiently and effectively service the area.

To sort out these conflicting visions, Wake decided to defer action on a tax referendum until the Triangle Transit plan could be re-evaluated. Then, in a move signaling a lack of confidence in Triangle Transit itself, Wake assembled an independent panel of national transportation experts to assess the current plan and BRT alternatives.

While Wake pressures mount, local growth here is exposing the weakness of our plan which allocates most of its resources on the narrow corridor of a short train line. The light rail is miles from where Orange County is growing. Efland-Mebane is the fastest expanding area. The county’s two economic development zones, finally getting utilities infrastructure, have already attracted their first major manufacturing plant. All these areas are woefully underserved by the Triangle Transit plan.

In Chapel Hill itself, the Central West, Obey Creek, Ephesus Church developments will all bring increased traffic, but this transit plan, flush with resources but hamstrung by disproportionate train costs, isn’t available to address any of them.

All of this has some local officials beginning to question whether the immediacy, flexibility and much lower cost of bus and BRT may be a better alternative not only for Wake County, but for here too. There is the potential for BRT in the plan on Martin Luther King Boulevard. But the planned train route may also benefit from the switch to bus. Triangle Transit’s own initial alternatives analysis concluded BRT moved as many commuters as the train, in almost the same amount of time for just a fraction of the expense. That would free up dollars for bus service in other areas.

The prudent course for our local governments would be to ask Triangle Transit to re-open a dialogue about whether the plan developed years ago is still the best route for the future of Orange County. If Triangle Transit is closed minded to such a frank discussion, perhaps that expert panel now busy looking at Wake County could turn their attention to us next. We don’t need to be looking at an empty train track when we could be filling buses with commuters now.

Mark Zimmerman lives and owns a small business in Chapel Hill. He can be reached at markrzim@gmail.com.

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