Commentary: Light rail the best option for our future needs

November 19, 2013 

Mark Zimmerman’s recent commentary (“Light rail plan off the tracks,” Nov. 10 bit.ly/1dYFE0w) has all the facts wrong concerning the Triangle’s long-range transit plans.

Zimmerman claims “support for a regional rail network has faded,” but neither he nor anyone else has presented evidence to support this claim. To the contrary, voters in Durham and Orange counties overwhelmingly approved sales taxes in 2011 and 2012, respectively, to fund their transit plans. Although the Republican-majority Wake County Board of Commissioners refuses to place a similar measure on the ballot there, polling found that 60 percent of Wake County residents support the Wake transit plan, including light rail ( bit.ly/WakeTransit).

Zimmerman is also wrong about bus rapid transit (BRT). If implemented to the degree required to meet the region’s long-term transit needs, BRT simply is not a substantially cheaper option compared to light rail transit (LRT). While BRT may have somewhat lower initial capital costs, its per-passenger operating costs are higher, making LRT the better long-term option.

LRT also influences development in a way BRT does not. LRT isn’t just a tool for moving people; it’s a tool for shaping growth in a more sustainable way. Zimmerman’s claim that the proposed LRT line is “miles away from where Orange County is growing” is unfounded and unsupported by the data. Projected growth along the proposed LRT corridor dwarfs growth occurring in any other area of Orange County.

It is critical to remember that not all types of growth in development translate into equal growth in transit demand. The huge job base and transit ridership already existing at UNC will still need to be served in the future. Growth occurring in areas such as Efland and Mebane is radically different than growth occurring in Chapel Hill, and to attempt to equate the two is disingenuous.

The Orange and Durham transit plans succeed not only in managing current needs, but also in meeting future needs. Constructing a light rail line that enables a larger number of people to have a 30-minute-or-less commute to the region’s major employment centers will enhance access to jobs and services and support economic opportunity throughout the region.

Beyond economics, transit plans also have social justice implications – and on this metric, LRT wins again. For example, the proposed LRT route provides transit access to lower-wealth neighborhoods near N.C. Central University, providing the community with much-needed access to high-quality transit. For residents of this area, BRT simply won’t suffice. The right-of-way is managed by the N.C. Railroad, which has taken a position against allowing rubber-tire vehicles in its right-of-way. Unless you tear down numerous homes in the community outside the right-of-way to build an exclusive busway, a BRT system would be forced to merge with local traffic, effectively eliminating a key advantage of a rapid transit system.

Light rail has the key advantages. It will generate more sustainable growth, move more people more swiftly and safely, and connect people to the Triangle’s major employment centers. Given the challenges and needs specific to our region, LRT is a critical step toward a fully integrated transportation system. It accomplishes many of the goals Zimmerman says he supports, and it will ultimately improve the quality of the air we breathe, address growing social inequities in our region, and enhance quality of life. LRT is the right choice for our transit future, and the data and the voters support this conclusion.

This commentary was written by Molly De Marco and Travis Crayton, who live in Chapel Hill, and Seth LaJeunesse and Damon Seils, who live in Carrboro.

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