Another Transit Tuesday for the County Commissioners

A few years ago, did you imagine you would find yourself wondering whether the Orange County Board of Commissioners supported basic progressive causes like enhanced public transit and smart land use planning?

For several years, local governments in the Triangle—including our county commissioners—have been working together on a long-range plan for what could become a transformative push toward a more sustainable future in our region. In numerous public meetings, the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) has studied alternatives and developed a plan for transit infrastructure that will serve the large majority of Orange County and Triangle residents.

Now only Orange County stands in the way. On Tuesday night, the board will direct Commissioner Alice Gordon how to vote on the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) at this week's meeting of the MPO's Transportation Advisory Committee. A vote for the LPA—already supported by all of our regional partners—will allow the MPO to apply for the federal funding needed to implement the plan.

True to recent form, the board seems to be following the lead of Commissioner county manager Frank Clifton. After a recent presentation on the LPA to the board, Clifton compiled an eleventh-hour list of bizarre questions and assertions that call into question whether the commissioners and staff have been paying attention for the past 15 years. (See the agenda materials for Tuesday night.) A major issue is Clifton's interest in running a rail line down the US Hwy 15-501 corridor. Yet, this option has been studied and rejected numerous times—which the commissioners and staff should know, since they were involved in the meetings that led to the very LPA they are now questioning.

Can our county commissioners reclaim some sense of leadership on Tuesday? Or will they offer another installment of what Gerry Cohen recently described as "amateur hour"? Tune in—or, better yet, attend the meeting—to find out.



Thanks for posting this, Damon. There's no doubt in my mind that it's going to take some attendance at county commission meetings to make a difference and make it clear to the commissioners that improving regional public transit is something our community wants and needs. I agree it's disappointing to see our commissioners so reluctant to support sustainable, smart development -- and I think they need some reminding about the priorities they should be focused on, particularly as they apply to the more populated and growing parts of our county and region.

what is in this support for the constiuents the OCCC represent who live north of Interestate 40? The light rail is for UNC hospital connection and additonal money will enhance support for better bus service in CH, but what's in it for our more rural county members and those living in Hillsborough? Perhaps a strong answer to that is what they are looking for.

The "draft" OC "Bus and Rail Investment Plan" is available on the MPO's website. It's not final, and has caveats about who has supported it, but I'm not sure if there's anything more recent. There are detailed proposals contained in the plan, including more links between Hillsborough and Durham and Hillsborough and Chapel Hill.The important thing to note is that by necessity most of the transit spots and runs will reach a pretty small proportion of the county's land area. Look at the population statistics from 2010. Chapel Hill and Carrboro include 57.3% of the county's population in only 6.9% of the county's land mass. Population density for the two towns is 2,785 people per square mile, meaning that for the rest of the county (including Hillsborough) population density is a sparse 153.85 people per square mile. The former can support a local bus systems with multiple stops at something resembling cost-effectiveness. The more rural areas can support park-and-rides with express service, but no one living in rural Orange County is going to be able to walk out their house and catch a bus that runs by every 15 minutes.

One response to your question is contained in Triangle Transit's responses to Frank Clifton's list of questions:

[N]early the entire Chapel Hill township is within 5 miles of the Gateway station, and...if you extend the radius up to 10 miles, significant portions of Hillsborough and Eno townships are also served. From the Mason Farm station,...the 10-mile radius also covers a significant portion of Bingham township.Overall, we estimate that close to 75% to 80% of Orange County residents are located within the traditional park-and-ride market sheds for light rail, or are along a feeder bus route to rail, or both.An additional point of interest from UNC's most recent commuter survey also shows that 57% of UNC park-and-riders drive more than 10 miles to get to their park-and-ride lot. This indicates that the capture areas for the Durham-Orange light rail line may be potentially larger than other light rail systems in the US based on the existing behavior of current residents who use park-and-ride.

I've tried to answer this question several times on this forum, and in emails to the OC commissioners. I don't understand what rural OCers don't like about light rail, other than the fact that it makes clear, once again, that OC's economic and population center lies south of I-40. What do OC rural voters/citizens want? I can imagine a few possibilities, and why light rail will help them (or, in the last instance), not: 1.) For everything to stay the same. Population growth in OC is a given. If the light rail is built, that growth will concentrate in the Chapel Hill area, as people will build residential units and businesses that are connected to the light rail. If the light rail isn't built, rural OC will see more suburbs, more traffic, and higher property taxes as land values increase. 2. Sustainable growth. With Chapel Hill sopping up much of the demand for housing/businsess, rural Orange can focus on attracting businesses and residents that meet with whatever vision they have for their future. I assume that heritage/rural tourism is the best fit for them (at least, that's the business I assume Hillsborough is in), but perhaps they could seek out some other sector of the economy.3. Unbridled growth. If rural OC really wants to become a suburb of Chapel Hill/Carrboro, with all the sprawl, traffic, high property values, etc., that comes with it, the light rail isn't in their interest. Given how reluctant Chapel Hill is to support development (the new food truck rules and the refusal to support the Charterwood development being just the latest examples), perhaps Hillsborough/rural Orange can build their own shopping centers to compete with those in Durham County. But, even then, I doubt they'll get much business from Chapel Hill, as Southpoint, etc, is still closer, and I suspect most people will move to Durham rather than Hillsborough if Chapel Hill prices everyone out.  Does anyone have any other possibilities in mind? I think there are some land-use problems that aren't being addressed, but the county isn't pushing the resolution of those issues. For example, one commissioner noted that UNC won't allow development near several of the planned light rail stops, which hurts the potential for this project to provide a return to the county. LIkewise, if the Chapel Hill town council is going to continue its policy of making development within city limits as difficult as possible, it's plausible that the project won't improve OC residents lives very much.  But, again, these issues aren't being addressed by the OC commissioners.  

Thanks for this clear articulation of what these key decisions mean for our community. I really can't believe that these "leaders" from northern Orange can't see that having a healthy and effective transportation system benefits the entire community. Much like having good schools and and environmental regulations. I am so disturbed to see the Commissioners - most of whom I considered strong progressive leaders before they were elected - follow this retrograde path on transit in particular and on the future of our community in general. It seems that they are allowing the County Manager to set the agenda and make the decisions, when it ought to be exactly the opposite. I've been amazed to see how often he is quoted in the local media lately, and sometimes even with a Commissioner providing the counter point. (Like in today's DTH: Commissioners need to take responsibility for their staff. They should not be arguing about policy, especially in public. If this Manager is not willing or not able to follow their directives then he should move along and let the County hire a manager that will work for US (via our elected representatives.) 

I find it funny that people on this thread think that OC Commissioners actually represent rural Orange County viewpoints. I have a completely opposite perception about the commissioners.  I would say they represent Chapel Hill/ Carrboro viewpoints more than not. Many of the commissioners are from Chapel Hill and Carrboro. A perfect example is the sales tax fiasco which disenfranchised the rural OC voters that defeated it the first time around. Lets face it they are voted in or out by the by Chapel Hill and Carrboro voters that outnumber rural OC residents by huge numbers. Getting back to public transportation. If you look at the 2 light rail current plans and the discarded 15/501 plan thay offer nothing to rural OC residents other than more taxes. The sprawl argument is a con job and please don't believe rural residents are stupid enough to fall for that con. There are inherent constraints in rural OC that will prevent sprawl. These being water and sewer. You need wells and septic in rural OC and you need land to perk your septic which is a built in buffer. I would also venture to say if you polled rural OC residents they would love to see more commercial development in the rural areas. After all we do have a huge Walmart which CH and Carrboro residents probably don't use much and instead probably utilize New Hope Commons in Durham County.  It seems that given the network of existing track, including the main Amtrak line and a spur off the main Amtrak line from University Station to Carrboro, it would be fairly simple to offer rural residents something other than a vague promise of more bus service. If the proposed Amtrak station in Hillsborough becomes a reality, how hard can it be to run a train in the morning and evening from the Hillsborough Amtrak station to Durham and reverse on the same type of track the Durham to Raleigh system will use??Having said that I firmly believe in and support building a rail transportation system and would gladly pay the proposed tax. I do think that all the present rail plans have serious problems. It seems that you would want the highest potential to move commuters between Chapel Hill,Durham, Cary and Raleigh. Having 2 incompatible infastructures of light rail between CH and Durham and diesel on existing track between Durham and Raleigh means you probably have to eliminate reasonable commuting time from Raleigh to Chapel Hill or reverse because you will have to make a transfer in Durham significantly increasing your commuter time to the point it may be a detriment to realizing the full potentail of this system an supporting the largest population of riders. Basically the Chapel Hill to Durham line will only support Chapel Hill to Durham commuters and reverse shutting out commuting to and from Cary and Raleigh to Chapel Hill.   

Two things jumped out at me while reading the agenda materials. One, they must have been sleeping for the last couple of decades when discussions of running fixed-guideway transit down 15-501 were taking place. Someone should tell them there has also been discussion about running BRT down (at least part of) MLK, though of course that's not as far along.Two, their analysis comparing LRT and BRT is bizarre. Just a sampling: Their contention that BRT could be completed for $13.5 million per mile is absurd, in no small part because the study where that figure comes from is 11 years old, refers to projects completed 30 years before then, and is given in 2001 dollars. The cost is also heavily weighted with projects that are remarkably unlike this one, which is designed to run in a new dedicated busway. That's unlike the most recent BRT system in the US, the Los Angeles Orange Line, which was built along an old railbed. It's a lot cheaper and provides much worse service to build a bus-only lane on the side of a road (or to run buses in mixed traffic). It's more expensive to do it the right way, which is how TT's proposal does it.Image. They look at a recent FTA publication on BRT which is, qiute frankly, an advocacy document and conclude that the "image" of BRT is the same as LRT. I'm not sure if they've ever ridden on a BRT. In other parts of the world, when given a chance to ride a BRT or an LRT, it's possible they're close.That's not the case here.Orange County staff believes that BRT will have the equivalent "ability to influence" economic and transit-oriented development. That's not based on any study I've seen.Environmental impact is a false point, because it ignores the fact that bus exhaust impacts the place where the bus traverses; the emissions for an LRT train are centralized and are more amenable to transitioning to alternatives sources of energy.One important point is that this meeting deals with the LPA, not the issue of the transit plan. Nevertheless, I think it's important the people show up and support the LPA and contineu the long process of urging the comissioners to put the question on the ballot.

Mark Zimmerman provided his own take in the Chapel Hill News.

Commissioner Alice Gordon offered the Orange County resolution this morning at the DCHC MPO meeting at Durham City Hall (C2 only). It failed for lack of a second at the 10-member meeting.  The Chapel Hill's position was offered (advance C1 and C2 with a stated preference for C2), that motion was adopted unanomously.  The original agenda (staff position perhaps) was to treat C1 and C2 equally in the process.

This came only after Commissioner Gordon's phone kept ringing during the meeting and she excused herself so she could talk with her staff to figure out exactly how she and the BOCC had voted last night. She could have just asked me, or read Damon's tweets...TT staff said the stated preference for C2 wasn't particularly relevant for this stage of the process, so from my perspective, the important thing that occurred is that C1 is part of the detailed environmental and engineering analysis that will soon begin.

Is it bad that everytime I attend a BOCC meeting and I hear her called "Commissioner Gordon" I chcukle?


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