Despite efforts to disrupt funding sources, the new light rail project in North Carolina is still moving forward. With plans to connect the fast-growing corridor between Durham and Orange County, the light rail train would run across a 17-mile stretch. According to GoTriangle, which serves as the Research Triangle Regional Public Transportation Authority, the cost for construction is estimated to be $1.8 billion and is scheduled to open in 2025.
Many residents believe the light rail project will be an important contribution to a livable, cohesive Triangle region anchored by Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, while reducing congestion. Ridership is projected to exceed 23,000 daily weekday riders by 2035, and the light rail is set to service:
- Three major medical centers;
- Three universities;
- Several sports venues;
- An intercity train station;
- Several major shopping destinations; and
- Multiple employment centers.
According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, a strong mass transit system will also help the environment, improve community health by decreasing reliance on motor vehicles, and will work to get cars off the road. By reducing the number of cars on the road, the system will help improve air quality, as well as reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases.
The current light rail plan includes four street-level crossings that would be created at intersections along Highway 54, near the county border, allowing access to trains. Several of these crossings occur in residential areas, and upon learning the light rail would interrupt highway access, residents in an adjacent neighborhood mobilized in opposition. Residents are also concerned about increased traffic congestion, noise, and a lack of dedicated parking. As GoTriangle gathered community input for the impact statement, many residents questioned whether the project goals could be better achieved through improvements to the regional bus system.
Initial plans included $900 million in funding from federal sources with $450 million in funding provided through local taxes passed by a voter referendum. The North Carolina legislature complicated funding plans in September when lawmakers capped all state spending on light rail projects at $500,000, regardless of the N.C. Department of Transportation already allocating $138 million for the Durham-Orange Light Rail. As a result, GoTriangle will submit a Draft Environmental Impact Statement to the Federal Transportation Administration in February in an effort to move forward with securing additional funding for 50 percent of the project costs.
Despite the future of the light rail line hinging on state and federal funding decisions, population growth and its subsequent traffic problems are not slowing down. According to GoTriangle, Durham-Chapel Hill is now one of the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. in terms of growth, with its population growing by 40 percent between 2000 and 2009. Recent figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau show that North Carolina now has more than 10 million residents, growing at a rate of 281 newcomers per day. As a result, the governor calls for a renewed focus on investing in the state’s infrastructure, drawing particular attention to transportation. If elected officials make good on this promise, the strategy should renew support for a funding solution for the light rail project. The effort is also poised to play a critical role in attracting and retaining businesses while connecting people to jobs, healthcare, education and recreation in the region.
In areas experiencing rapid population growth, should transportation infrastructure projects be prioritized? What are some other cities with successful light rail systems? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.
Credits: Images by Rachel Eberhard and Our Transit Future. Data linked to sources.