My Letter of Support for Durham-Orange Light Rail

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.

Thank you,
Tom Farmer

Comments if you are arguing for an economic development plan and not a transit plan. Paying for economic development with scarce public transit dollars that are collected through regressive taxation is unconscionable. If the economics are so great, why is it this is not being sold that way? Why doesn’t Durham and Orange float some more bonds? The truth is people would laugh out loud at the business case.  If UNC and Duke economies are so enhanced by DOLRT let them kick in from their enormous endowments. Sadly, for GoT, Duke opposes it. We hear crickets from UNC.

LRT is a 1.9 Billion dollar (and counting) sore thumb in the regional transit planning. After a more contemporary and thorough study, Wake rejected LRT and now that we have the chance, we should too.

I am taking the train to Washington DC for Christmas and have spent much of my childhood riding commuter trains. I love them. 

But Guess What?  I am not willing to pay more taxes for Gotriangle's Light Rail Project when competing with funds for schools and social service -- the main responsibility of the County.   I started having concerns about light rail when years ago Wake County dropped out of this regional project - that changed everything.  Now the plan serves only a tiny corner of Orange County. The developable  land served by the light rail line is almost all in Durham County. Light Rail is fine for Durham but will steer investment away from Orange County, hurting our tax base, employment opportunities and our school system.

GoTriangle has finally recognized that this regional transit authority will need more funding and that it’s not coming from the state of North Carolina. Orange County is being asked to come up with the difference!  On November 15th, GoTriangle will ask the Orange County Board of County Commissioners to sign a Letter of Intent which would commit the county to an additional $40 million in funding, raising the local contribution from 25% to 40% of the overall project cost. In addition, GoTriangle has requested that an additional $20 million be diverted from sidewalk/greenway projects to the Light Rail project. All this assumes that the state legislature grants full funding of 10% and that the project, which is only 30% engineered, will come in on budget.

GoTriangle representatives explained that the increase in funding is intended to cover a $250 million funding gap created by a decrease in state contributions from 25% to “up to 10%”, as well as interest costs associated with a mismatch between the timing of funds from the Federal Transportation Authority and construction.

Unfortunately, missing from GoTriangle’s presentation was information about a number of other important financial factors which will, very likely, mean that the project cost (and Orange County’s share) will rise even further. These include:

  • Uncertainties on Federal funding
  • Rising interest rates
  • Rising constriction labor costs
  • Uncertainties about federal contributions
  • Lower sales tax revenues than expected
  • Possibility of less than 10% state contribution
  • Amount of cost overruns the county must absorb

Note: Assuming the revised budget is $1.87B, then there is already an increase of $520M (+38%) over the earlier 2012 estimate of $1.35B … and they haven’t even finished designing the project!

Everyone wants better transit, and Orange County voters approved a local tax in 2015 for improved transit.  But the money raised is going overwhelmingly to funding light rail studies, while shortchanging investment in the practical public transportation that we need here in Orange County.

Why should County elected officials reevaluate the light rail project now?  The cost of the project may have exceeded any perceived benefit and would reduce funding for important Orange County priorities:

  1. A viable Chapel Hill transit system which better serves Chapel Hill and which can be expanded into rural areas where UNC workers live;
  2. Future funding for Bus Rapid Transit, sidewalks, and bikeways;
  3. Maintaining excellence in our public schools which have been hit hard by state cutbacks; and
  4. Moderating tax increases to keep living in Orange County affordable.

The County Commission have not said where they would find the funds for the additional funding for light rail, but most likely it would come from new property taxes –  estimated to rise by 10 cents if the carrying costs of the bonds just passed are factored in. This will make Orange County more unafforable.

When we raise taxes we make it more and more difficult to make living in Orange County affordable. Taking on this heavy light rail commitment for the next ten years would squeeze our public school budgets just when the state has cut funding for public schools,  forcing our county to make up the difference with property tax revenue.

Before the Commissioners commit to any more County money they must:

  • Understand how the additional commitments would impact future Orange County school budgets and other priorities for housing, affordability and transportation.
  • Do an evaluation by an independent auditor of the figures GoTriangle presents, as well as the benefits and costs of the light rail project in the light of the cost increases.

♦    Sign the petition asking the County Commissioners to hit the “pause button”


An additional point is that the GoT request constitutes a "material change". Despite the letter being billed as "non-binding", signing it may still nullify the material change. It is not clear if there is recourse later and what that recourse may be. This could be the last opportunity Orange County has to reevaluate DOLRT. Even if it is not the last opportunity, the LoI/MoU allows GoT to continue to spend tax dollars on DOLRT rather than revectoring tax monies to other necessary transit.

The BoCC should insist DOLRT be cleanly separated from the rest of the regional transit plan, and ideally open an independent investigation of costs, feasibility and benefits before signing anything. 


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