Light Rail Routing Advocacy for Meadowmont

Last week, the Meadowmont Community Association (our homeowners' association) sent out a letter (a paper letter, via actual mail!) with the nominal purpose of informing residents of upcoming hearings before Town Council on the routing of the proposed light rail line. (For details on the issue, see my first blog post and my followup.) It omitted some important details however, so I wrote a response and emailed it around to some of my neighbors. I've posted it on my new single-issue website http://meadowmontlightrail.com, and I'm reprinting it below. I hope everyone has a great 2012. — Geoffrey F. Green

January 2, 2012

Dear neighbors:

You may have already received a letter from the Meadowmont Community Association (MCA) regarding the proposed light-rail line through Meadowmont. That letter provides an incomplete overview of the proposed line's impact on Meadowmont. It ignores all of the benefits that light-rail would bring to the neighborhood. I've written this note to fill in the blanks and to encourage you to contact Town Council in support of running the line through Meadowmont. Town Council will hold a hearing to decide on the route on January 23.

Background

As you may know, Meadowmont's approval in 1995, with its high density and mix of residential, commercial and retail uses, was conditioned upon the reservation of land for a mass transit line. This reserved route runs on the west side of Meadowmont Lane behind the village's parking lots, the Wachovia bank and UNC Wellness Center, before crossing Meadowmont Lane and exiting Meadowmont along the northern edge of the Cedars retirement community.

The light-rail line is proposed to run from UNC hospital and stop behind the Smith Center, at East 54 and at the Friday Center. From the Friday Center the plans have it crossing NC-54 on a bridge, running at ground level through Meadowmont, and then continuing towards Durham. Stops along the route include Patterson Place, South Square, Erwin Road in front of Duke Hospital, and the American Tobacco Campus and downtown Durham, near the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

The project is currently in early development. If the federal government agrees to fund the bulk of the construction costs, the line would be in operation in about a decade. The regional transportation body (the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization) is set to approve a "Locally Preferred Alternative" route in February, and Town Council's preference will carry significant weight. At that point, Triangle Transit will begin a detailed engineering and environmental analysis of the route before it applies for funding. If Town Council votes against the planned Meadowmont route, we will lose substantial benefits for our community.

Light Rail's Benefits for Meadowmont Residents

The light-rail line will have several advantages for Meadowmont residents:

  • Convenient, one-ride service to employment, medical and recreation destinations like UNC Hospital, the Smith Center, the Duke campus, downtown Durham, and the existing and planned retail and commercial developments at South Square and Patterson Place. Meadowmont will be the only neighborhood in Chapel Hill with such access.
  • Rapid travel to Durham even during rush hour periods, something particularly important given future projections of increased congestion on NC-54. Projected travel time from UNC Hospital to downtown Durham is 35 minutes, and riders will have the freedom to text friends, peruse an iPad or work for the entire trip, rather than gaze into taillights on 15-501.
  • Increased business for struggling Meadowmont merchants. That will mean more retail options for us.
  • Greater independence for those who don't or can't drive cars, like the elderly and teenagers, and a safe alternative to drinking and driving.
  • Increased home values. Numerous studies have demonstrated that access to light rail improves property value. For example, a study of the new light-rail system in Charlotte shows that single family homes located close to its new light-rail line experienced about 5% faster appreciation than homes bypassed by light rail.

The Alternative Option Is Inferior and Hurts Meadowmont

The route through Meadowmont has been termed the “C1 route.” There is an alternate route being proposed that excludes our community. Called the “C2 route”, this route would continue down the south side of NC-54 to a stop east of Barbee Chapel Road. That stop is at a site known as Hillmont, where there is an approved development that's been dormant for several years. It would then continue down NC-54 before joining the original route towards Durham as before.

The C2 alternative will have significant negative impacts for Meadowmont residents.

First, the C2 route will make the light rail practically inaccessible for Meadowmont residents.

  • Numerous studies have shown that people won’t walk more than about a half mile to get to an LRT stop. The Hillmont station is more than a half mile from just about every home and condominium in Meadowmont. For example, a home on Little Branch is about a quarter-mile walk from the Meadowmont station, but nearly a mile from the Hillmont stop.
  • There’s no good way to reach the Hillmont station on foot. There is no convenient way to cross NC-54 at Barbee Chapel, and no way that could be made a pleasant or quick crossing.
  • The proposed Friday Center stop is not a viable alternative. From the intersection of Barbee Chapel Road and the greenway trail, pedestrians would have to walk down a quarter mile of unlit paths through an oft-flooded pedestrian tunnel.
  • Some opponents of the light-rail line have suggested that Meadowmont residents could simply park at the proposed park-and-ride stop at Hillmont, but most Chapel Hill park-and-ride lots are at capacity today. Moreover, requiring Meadowmont residents to drive to Hillmont precludes independence for teens and elderly drivers.

I’ve included an image showing the location of the different proposed stations at the end of this note. Frankly, no one in Meadowmont will use a light-rail stop across NC-54.

Map of Meadowmont area, proposed light rail stops, and walking time.

A station on NC-54 will make traffic on NC-54 worse.

  • If the station is placed at Hillmont, a park-and-ride is planned. That facility will significantly increase transit congestion at the intersection of Barbee Chapel and NC-54.
  • The MCA’s letter notes that there will not be any new parking with a Meadowmont station. However, several large park-and-ride lots are planned closer to Interstate 40, with the goal of allowing commuters to access transit without clogging roads in Chapel Hill. There's no reason to think there will be a flood of cars trying to park in Meadowmont.

In summary, the light rail system will increase traffic congestion along NC-54, but it'll be too far away for Meadowmont residents to use it. It would bring Meadowmont all the disadvantages of light rail with none of the advantages.

The MCA’s letter overstates certain matters.

  • The original projections show the C1 route to be slightly more expensive, but that is highly speculative and preliminary. In fact, as Triangle Transit has acknowledged at public hearings, the C2 route may be costlier than C1 due to recent proposals to expand NC-54 and Barbee Chapel Road. Moreover, local (Durham and Orange County) taxpayers will only be on the hook for a small fraction of the cost, since most of the cost will be paid for by the federal government, and the rest will be covered by a transit sales tax. In any event, as a function of the cost of the entire project, the estimated increased cost of the Meadowmont routing is a small difference.
  • The environmental impact is unclear. While the MCA’s letter brings up the possible impact on lands behind Meadowmont, and includes a letter solicited by its opponents to try to block the route, it is important to note that both of the proposed routes traverse wetlands. Further, no construction will begin until a detailed environmental evaluation is conducted.
    More importantly, though, this exclusive focus on possible impact to wetlands ignores the environmental benefit that would accrue by running the light-rail line through Meadowmont, allowing its thousands of residents, employees and visitors to substitute car trips for rail trips. It also ignores the impact that the light rail would have on the wetlands traversed by the alternate C2 route.
  • Finally, the vast majority of Meadowmont residents won't hear any noise or vibration from the trains. These aren't loud freight trains and they're not New York City subways – modern light-rail is quiet. The trains will be silent for the vast majority of single-family homes in Meadowmont, and they will have minimal impact on most others. As for the homes in the Cedars near the line, its developers built those homes after Meadowmont was planned and they were required to give special notice to purchasers that the transit line would be coming.

What You Can Do

There has been a very vocal minority, mostly Cedars residents, writing Town Council and attending public hearings to oppose the line through Meadowmont. We need Meadowmont residents to let Town Council know that Meadowmont residents do not want the Triangle’s first light-rail line to bypass our community. Here’s how you can help:

Spread the word: Please distribute this note to any other Meadowmont residents you know, particularly potential supporters of the line. You are welcome to contact me for additional information about any topic relating to the light-rail line, including its history and the planning process. I've listed contact information below.

Write Town Council: Send Town Council a letter at mayorandcouncil@ townofchapelhill.org. Make sure you state that you're a resident, and provide your name and street address for verification. For thoughts on how the Meadowmont stop benefits the larger community, you're welcome to check out the letter I wrote to Town Council in November. It’s available here.

Speak before Town Council: Your presence at Town Hall for the Town Council hearing on January 23, beginning at 7 pm, would be influential. While letters are helpful, nothing beats speaking directly to the Council members. When you arrive you can sign up to speak. I plan to be there as well.

Visit http://meadowmontlightrail.com to learn more about light rail's impact on Meadowmont. I’ve set up this web site to provide additional information and links to other resources about the light-rail project. If anyone contacts me with questions, I'll also post answers there.

Transit ridership has been increasing nationwide, and with the high cost of gasoline and increasing concerns about the effect of excessive auto-dependence on the environment and our quality of life, neighborhoods near transit will be in the best position to succeed in the future. Let’s make sure that Meadowmont is successful for decades to come.

Thanks very much, and happy New Year.

Geoff Green
geoff at stuebegreen.com
https://twitter.com/geoff_green

Issues: 

Total votes: 304

Comments

Geoff, I assume you've seen this editorial:

http://www.carrborocitizen.com/main/2012/01/05/c2-is-the-preferred-light... 

Do you think these environmental concerns are sincere but misguided, or just an excuse for NIMBYism? When I did a search for the "Friends of the Little Creek Bottomlands," I found a link to the "Save Bolin Creek" group which has fought the paved bike-trail between Carrboro and Chapel Hill. 

 

I'm really surprised to see so many groups in Chapel Hill come out against an urbanist, car-free vision for the future.  

Hi anon:Thanks for the link to the editorial. As far as I know, John Wilson doesn't live in or particularly near Meadowmont, so he's certainly not a NIMBY as to the light-rail line.More to the point, I do not at all suggest that we should build this thing through the slopes without investigating the impact on the area. However, both routes have potential environmental impacts, and it's foolish to eliminate one of the routes at this stage in the game. If both options are pushed forward as the Locally Preferred Alternative, then both options will get a comprehensive environmental workups, including both the environmental impacts from construction and maintenance of the rail platform. The letter from the NC DENR cites the "high diversity of the wildlife typical of this region" as a reason to avoid C1, but why not allow this examination to take place so as to quantify its environmental value using scientific techniques? Given the fact that there would be this detailed environmental evaluation, I'm not sure why there's such determined forces arrayed at eliminating the C1 option from the get-go.On a side note, I've addressed the points he recites about the specious "advantages" of the Hillmont stop, so I won't repeat myself here.

I would be pleased to give an offline response to the anonymous commentator's questions, if given an email address or other contact information. The specific organizational name used in the Carrboro Citizen column is "Friends of the Little Creek Bottomlands and Slopes SNHA." That exact name will not link to anything except the opinion column in the Citizen. As the first person in Chapel Hill to highlight the long-standing existence of this natural area (as part of the long consideration of the now-defunct Aydan Court project), I can clarify a number of facts about the area to anyone interested, but would prefer to do this offline.   Ed HarrisonChapel Hill representative, Triangle Transit Board of Trustees 

Some of you might have seen a recent piece entitled “Support Meadowmont Light Rail” (“Support LRT”) a self-styled response to the Meadowmont Community Association’s (MCA) letter to community residents about the proposed light rail routes, both C1 and C2, and its impact on the Meadowmont Community. Cutting to the chase a bit, but Geoff Green’s piece is more cherry-picking about a plan for light rail, C1, who’s initial plan-and process was-and remains-flawed and would not serve the best interests of the community, including Meadowmont. Flawed because one of its primary responsibilities, namely, to avoid, mitigate and reduce environmental damage was, in a word-overlooked. That is why there is a better plan available to the community: C2.The single greatest fatal flaw to C1 is its damaging and destructive impact on the environment, namely, the Little Creek Slopes and Bottomlands, a Natural Heritage site, with barely a mention in Green’s piece. What’s important to recognize is that the Little Creek Natural Heritage site, which borders Meadowmont and is walked and enjoyed by countless residents and citizens of Chapel Hill, is part of our community and something we ought to protect as citizens of this great and singular town.“Support LRT” in fact offers an incomplete overview of C1 and the environmental damage it would do to our surrounding precious resource and cherry-picks advantages and outcomes that amount to a reach in many cases. Essentially, “Support LRT” only mentions-almost in passing- that “the environmental impact is unclear” and “…no construction will begin until a detailed environmental evaluation is conducted.” For many concerned citizens in Meadowmont and Chapel Hill, where protection of the environment thankfully remains high on our collective list of priorities for the community, kicking the can down the road is cold comfort at best. C1 and its process failed from the get-go to appreciate and enumerate the damage it would do the Little Creek Natural Heritage site, one with significant slopes and the like. Reaching out to environmental stakeholders both within the public and non-public sectors would have provided the necessary background to have made an informed and well-founded decision on which route would have done the least amount, not the greatest amount of environmental damage from the very beginning of the project. Construction of a rail project in this unique environment would spell the Little Creek’s Bottomland and Slopes ultimate-and unnecessary demise. I would ask anyone to go to this precious area and view it for yourself, and I can assure you that you don’t need to be an environmental engineer to appreciate what’s at stake. Look, like many of us I want to take my children on a light rail that we can proudly call our own. But, I also want to be able to share the uniqueness of the land, and what I believe makes Chapel Hill special-and desirable as a destination for folks near and far-is a well-founded balance between the land and our more daily needs. C1, even though the plan-on-record, did not and does not take this into account.C2, though not without some level of environmental impact, provides a light rail that does not do maximum damage to our environment as C1 proposes. For folks in Meadowmont, it provides an option at both the Hillmont and Friday Center stations, both of which have dedicated parking (Meadowmont has no dedicated parking for rail users who would in many cases be driving to park and ride due to weather, etc., not to mention that many residents would live too far to walk in any case) and whose costs for the overall project are projected lower than C1. However, I won’t make any bones about it, the primary and singular argument in favor of C2 is the significantly reduced damage to our environment, namely the Natural Heritage site, the Little Creek Bottomlands and Slopes. For many of us, the other arguments, though certainly important and weighty ones, pale in comparison.LRT is here to stay and a good option for our community. I support LRT, and I support the Meadowmont community’s access to it just as the title would suggest; but hand-in-hand with this valuable transportation option is the responsibility to do as little environmental damage/harm as possible to a community that highly values its natural environment. I’m afraid “Support LRT” provides nary a word on the environmental damage that C1 will in fact do. C2 is a win-win for the broader Chapel Hill and Durham communities, including folks in Meadowmont for which I’m one, by providing an invaluable transportation service with a balanced, measured and respectful approach in attempting to do as little environmental damage as possible. That, at the end of the day, is the absolute essential element for any such project, whether on the record, proposed or otherwise.All the best, Geoffrey Daniel Geist

Geoffrey:Cherry-picking, really? Let's take a look at the issues you mention here. I addressed the envirionmental issue. I mentioned why the parking issue you mention is a non-starter, and why no one at Meadowmont will use the station stop at Hillmont. And I discussed the cost differences. Looks like I didn't avoid any of the key issues. I didn't mention some of the other concerns that C1 opponents have brought up, such as the alleged impact that it will have on safety (a specious argument), but those concerns weren't discussed in the MCA's letter.In any event, as you well know, if C1 and C2 are passed through to the next stage, no construction will begin until there's a detailed environmental analsyis to determine the precise impact that the route will have on either of these areas. If a carefully conducted analysis says it's impractical to build on C1, then from my perspective, so be it. My contention is that an elevated light-rail line is not going to have that substantial of an impact, certaintly nothing like the former Ayden Court development, and I think the science will show that. I'm not sure why there's such opposition to conducting the scientific examination necessary to determing the full effect that the light rail line would have, on either route, before making a final decision.

Shouldn't the CH Planning Dept. staff have made it clear to the LPA that the light rail is REQUIRED to go through Meadowmont? If the line was a condition of the SUP, does this mean that such conditions are violable at the discretion of future councils? Didn't the realtors who sold the land and houses to people in Meadowmont tell them that light rail was going to come through their neighborhood?I feel like Roy in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."   Henry Lister

As I recall, one of the Meadowmont SUPs requires the owners of the shopping center to reduce the amount of parking there if the transit line uses the dedicated right of way. That was a major bone of contention during the permit hearings and there was feeling on the council that if anything it wasn't aggressive enough in demanding a parking cut-back. There was no assumption that Meadowmont would or should serve as a de-facto park and ride.

As far as I can tell, the right of way goes through the edge of tje parking lots, so some parking would have to be sacrificed.It would be a huge issue. Parking at the Meadowmont retail area during peak times would go from using 45% of available spaces to using 70%. Maybe even 75%.

Wednesday January 11 at 9:30 am the Durham Chapel Hill Carrboro MPO will hold a public hearing on the Locally Preferred alternatives for the Durham-Chapel Hill corridor at Durham city hall. (meeting starts at 9, agenda says public hearuing at 9:30)Here is a compendium of comments received so far by the MPO staffhttp://www.dchcmpo.org/dmdocuments/AltAnalysisComments.pdfandhttp://dchcmpo.org/agenda/agendafiles/tac/2012-01-11/individual/Att%2007%20-%20Comments%20on%20Alternatives%20Analsysis.pdf

For some reason I thought the MPO hearing was yesterday, when I wasn't available, and not today, when I was free for the morning. So I attended. I spoke in favor of Meaodowmont, some folks spoke about the environmental implications of the Meadowmont route, and there was also talk of impacts the route would have in Durham. Rebecca Board (sp?) of the Downing Creek HOA (it's south of NC-54 and east of Barbee Chapel, next to the C2 route) said that they'd been in discusssions with Triangle Transit and could support C2 if certain modifications were made, but I'm not sure what those requests involve. I had to leave before the public comment period ended.

The only really disappointing presubmitted written comment was this one from someone advocating Hillmont rather than Meadowmont, and who said they had experience with Atlanta's MARTA: "Much like a shopping mall, rapid rail allows people of different backgrounds to congregate freely and, as such, provides focal points for persons who wish to rob,steal, cheat, harrass, or otherwise cause a disturbance.

 

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