Commentary

Wilson: Light-rail numbers don’t add up

CorrespondentDecember 16, 2013 

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An artist’s rendering shows a future light-rail line crossing a bridge over N.C. 54 near the Friday Center station in Chapel Hill.

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A light rail line between East Durham and UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill has an air of fantasy about it – think Disneyworld’s monorail – so it was no surprise that a panel of mass transit big-thinkers doubts our local big-spenders.

As reported by staff writer Tammy Grubb, the trio extrapolated the feasibility of Durham-Chapel Hill light rail from a study of mass transit options in Wake County. They weren’t impressed with Wake’s suitability for light rail, either.

And like other skeptics of light rail, they recommended comprehensive bus transit for Wake. They also suggested the same would be better for Durham and Orange counties than plowing $1.3 billion into a 17-mile rail line.

Durham and Orange are stuffing a hope chest for light rail and improved bus service with a modest sales tax increase and higher auto registration fees. Wake voters, more cautious, have not approved the third leg of the funding triangle for light rail.

Of course, critics were quick to drop an anvil on the experts. But most people with an open mind would agree that the experts are right: Light rail doesn’t fit our low-density population template. Maybe someday, but not now.

In fact, the only rail plan that might work in Wake and the Research Triangle is commuter rail service running from the west and east on the N.C. Railroad tracks leased to Norfolk Southern. That isn’t light rail, but it could keep a fair number of cars off the highways.

Light rail seduces with its sleekness, speed and comfort. It is more user-friendly than commuter rail, but ridership projections for the Durham-Chapel Hill line are only 14,000 a day – in 2035.

Triangle Transit is hoping the Federal Transit Administration will come through with 50 percent of the light rail tab, which if you look at the cost in terms of length, amounts to $83 million a mile.

No light rail line ever comes in at its projected cost. The $1.3 billion figure for the Durham-Chapel Hill line is about as solid as a sand castle at high tide.

The Research Triangle needs convenient bus service above all else. We are way behind our peers with improvements as simple as dedicated bus lanes. Using I-40 shoulders for that purpose is a stopgap measure at best, and hardly the safest means when buses must go into and out of shoulder lanes at access ramps.

Worse, too many bus stops are so bare they don’t deserve the dignity of the name. Two stops on N.C. 54 across from the Farrington Road strip center consist only of signs. No weather protection for riders, no schedules, no nothing except those skinny signs.

If, for example, you wanted to catch the morning express bus to Raleigh, you have to go into Chapel Hill and park for an ever-increasing fee. Why can’t people in Southwest Durham catch a convenient bus to downtown Raleigh at the Farrington stops?

They could with comprehensive, frequent bus service and its attendant trappings such as passenger shelters. I remain convinced that smaller buses, more nimble buses running on compressed, low-emissions natural gas would serve the Triangle better than light rail for the next 50 years.

Let’s think utilitarian, Durham-Orange: Put the money where it does the most good for the greatest number.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.

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