To The Orange County Board of Commissioners:
I am writing in support of Durham Orange Light Rail, infrastructure that will bring environmentally and socially responsible growth to Orange County. I am quite familiar with local transit and have commuted to work with GoTriangle since 2009. Though the proposed line will not directly serve my route, I am convinced that DOLRT is needed to maintain the efficiency of my GoTriangle commute. Further, as the spine of a comprehensive regional transit plan, DOLRT is vital to our continued economic prosperity.
The Triangle's population and traffic continues to grow at a faster rate than our road capacity. The average annual traffic delay has grown to 34 hours per commuter. We burn nearly 10 million gallons of fuel while waiting in traffic. Combining wasted fuel with lost productivity leads to an estimated road congestion cost of over $700 per commuter each year. We are already the third most sprawling area in the country and desperately need to begin implementing an integrated multimodal transit plan.
There are those who advocate solving this problem solely with rubber and asphalt. They claim that light rail is too expensive. Not only does this argument ignore the economic and environmental costs of not building efficient high capacity transit, it ignores light rail as an investment. Every billion dollars spent on light rail in the US has created nearly 50,000 jobs. Economic development associated with light rail has happened at a 4:1 ratio to cost, a pattern playing out in Charlotte which is now doubling its original 9 mile line. That line's fiercest opponent, former Mecklenburg Commissioner Jim Puckett, said in the Charlotte Observer, “I have to admit, (light rail is doing) better than I expected... Our concern was whether we would have a white elephant, and it doesn't seem we do.” Independent analysis projects DOLRT to add nearly $5 billion to the Durham and Orange County GDP and generate $175 million in new tax revenue.
Light rail opponents claim that it is not flexible and does not provide access to jobs. Nothing could be further from the truth. The line connects the largest employer in Orange County with the largest employer in Durham County, both in the top ten for the state.
Not only does it link over 100,000 jobs along it's 17 mile route, DOLRT allows for expanded bus service for those like me not on the light rail line. Building light rail creates a "bus dividend" that allows bus service to expand beyond the urban core and meet future growth. As growth dictates, the light rail line can expand or link with other components of an integrated transit system such as BRT.
Opponents claim that money spent on light right is better spent on more bus services. Bus routes between Durham and Orange counties are nearing capacity, already carrying nearly 10,000 passengers per weekday. The fact is that our investment in light rail is not at the expense of bus service, but absolutely necessary for its enhancement and efficiency. Fixed guideway transit is the spine of an integrated transit network that does not get choked off by increasing traffic. The reach, frequency, and efficiency of bus service is expanded as buses can avoid the congestion of downtown Durham and Chapel Hill while still providing access. Such efficient transit is essential to lifting people out of poverty allowing access to jobs for those who without cars. We cannot afford to have our buses mired in traffic as we apply asphalt band aids to our growing congestion.
Opponents claim that that light rail drives up land values around stations and displaces low income housing. Property values will go up around the light rail, potentially displacing those who need more affordable housing. Yet, without light rail, people would also be displaced from central locations because of rising property values caused by traffic congestion diminishing access to downtown areas and employment centers. This displaces people further away from their jobs and feeds upon itself. Unlike Charlotte, we need to embrace affordable housing along the line before it is completed. Further, DOLRT has been carefully designed along a concentrated corridor of transit usage by households with more workers than cars. Without a high capacity transit spine such as DOLRT, growth will become congestion and sprawl diminishing access to jobs in addition to damaging the environment and threatening rural buffers.
Opponents claim that bus rapid transit is cheaper. This is true. BRT does have a vital role to play in Orange County as plans for the North South corridor testify. Yet, BRT is not the appropriate solution for access to the urban core jobs in Chapel Hill and Durham. Both Duke and UNC Medical Centers need high capacity fixed guideway access for employees and patients. Both are experiencing bus congestion and serious parking issues. Without the higher capacity and greater efficiency of light rail, they will find it difficult to maintain their status among the nation’s leading medical centers.
The Durham Orange Light Rail project is the anchor of an extensively studied regional transport plan that includes an 8 train per day rail station in Hillsborough, high capacity bus service along MLK boulevard, and expanded regional bus services as well as bicycle paths and walkways. Yes, it is expensive, but so are more roadways; we just spent over a billion dollars on 19 miles of Triangle Expressway. However, high capacity transit is a much better investment than more asphalt. It pays for itself in economic growth that is at once environmentally friendly and socially responsible.
Either we invest in efficient transit or lose our ability to economically compete with those regions that do. We ignore efficient transit infrastructure at our future economic peril.