Light rail

On June 27, the Chapel Hill Town Council will be providing recommendations to the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Transportation Advisory Committee regarding the alignment of the proposed light rail line which will connect Chapel Hill with Durham, UNC Hospitals with Duke Hospital and downtown Durham. As a Meadowmont resident, I'm particularly interested in the choices of routing which involve Meadowmont, and I'm interested in what others in the local progressive community think about the options.

When the approval of the Meadowmont community was up before Town Council in 1995, one of its selling points, and presumably one of the reasons Roger Perry and East-West Partners were allowed to build at such high densities, was the reservation of a 50-foot wide mass-transit corridor (see also here). The corridor is still there, still free of development, and passes by the commercial area and rental apartments before making a turn behind the residences in the Cedars retirement community.

Of course, promises are easy to make. In the year since Meadowmont was built and people began living here, opposition to the planned transit line has grown. It's unclear just how large it is -- while this Durham Herald-Sun article claims Meadowmont residents are "well-organized and have been voicing displeasure about the connector plan since 2006," it's not evident that this opposition is either particularly well-organized or large. What is true is that some influential members of the community have come out against it, and they are the ones making the most noise.

As a resident, I would welcome a rail line. It would provide much better public transit access to UNC Hospitals and, hopefully eventually, downtown Chapel Hill/Carrboro. It would also provide easy access to places to work and visit in Durham. It just makes sense to site a transit station in the midst of a community which was developed with the residential and commercial density to support mass transit. And it's quickly becoming clear that the way we live is becoming less sustainable; we can't keep building out further and further and expect people to drive everywhere. It's financial and environmental suicide. The Meadowmont alignment makes the most sense.

The alternative routing runs the rail line down NC-54, with a stop near the Woodmont development, before crossing NC-54 and continuing to the Leigh Valley area in Durham. The Woodmont development is outside Chapel Hill and largely undeveloped. So, essentially this alternative would place a rail stop in a much less dense neighborhood, where it's unclear who exactly would utilize the station. The proponents of this option have suggested that higher-density transit-oriented development be encouraged for the area around the station, but that's a big gamble. That's not to mention that the alternative stop is outside Chapel Hill and so any financial benefits that accure to the development around the stop won't go to either Chapel Hill or Orange County. Plus, notwithstanding the rail station any development would surely involve added automobile traffic, and this would dump even more vehicles on an already congested NC-54.

That's not to mention that choosing the alternative outside Meadowmont makes a mockery of the Meadowmont approval process. Why condition approval of Meadowmont's higher density on reservation of a mass transit line if it's not going to be used for a mass transit line?

Meadowmont still has great potential to be a new urbanist community which showcases the way forward in a world where oil is much more expensive. It's not nearly there. Housing is very expensive, except for the limited affordable units. I'd be shocked if there were more than a handful of households with fewer than one automobile per adult. A transit line with connecting bus access could give residents a good alternative to driving, and make novel services such as car-sharing a possibility. It would also help deliver more customers to a still-struggling commercial area. To place a station in an empty area where there's little development is a wasted opportunity.

If anyone in or near Meadowmont would be interested in joining me in making our caes before Town Council on June 27, please let me know. Thanks.



Geoff,Just a couple of clarifications: Woodmont, now renamed Hillmont, is located on just over 30 acres in the Town of Chapel Hill; and it's master land use plan calls for more than 600,000 sq feet of mixed retail, office and residential use.Mark 

Mark:I appreciate your clarifications. The maps I expected that Woodmont/Hillmont was much further out than I thought. A couple of thoughts, after seeing the site map, the council documents, and the proposed station placement (which clearly indicates Woodmont's location, I'd been looking at something else):

  • The station borders NC-54, to the north of the Hillmont development, so the entire northern section of the station's cachment area will be empty. Most Meadowmont residents will live too far away to walk to the station, and it's unlikely that the area directly north will be developed. Moreover, as currently configured it is impossible to cross East 54 at that point. While the SUP and future plans for NC 54 provide for enhanced pedestrian connectivity at street level, there remains great uncertainty as to the suitability of the site.
  • The Hillmont development is years from being completed; it's unclear how much activity has taken place since the project was approved in 2008.
  • As a transit destination, it is severely deficient in comparison to Meadowmont. The rail line bisects the eastern end of Meadowmont and is situated close to a dense residential apartment complex, along with hundreds of other nearby residences. There are already hundreds of UNC employees working in offices on site, along with other office employees. One new Class A office building is in the works, and the Meadowmont master plan provides for two four-story office buildings on the corner of Barbee Chapel & Meadowmont Lane, right across the street from the proposed station. And of course there's retail, which would help make Meadowmont a transit destination even outside rush hour.Hillmont is years from reaching this size, if it ever does.

Obviously, Hillmont has a big advatnage. The current lack of density around the proposed station site makes for less opposition. But please don't overstate the opposition to LRT in Meadowmont -- its opponents may be noisy but there's not much evidence that they're numerous.Thanks for reading.

One of the key elements in the decision at the federal level on which projects get federal funding among many competing applications is ridership level.  A line through a developed area already mixed use with close in walking access to the rail station will get a higher score than a proposal which has a station at a site which might have future development and might have potential ridership. So decisions like this will have an impact on the entire three county grant application.  Will it be make or break?  We don't know, just that it will be a factor.

I am thankful for your efforts, Geoff. I remember that the SUP was granted to Meadowmont with the stipulation that a light rail station be part of the project in anticipation of it coming down the main drag toward the Friday Center.  I am now shocked to see that this "agreement" is being rejected by Meadowmont home owners.Their concerns fall on my deaf ears, just as homeowner complaints from those who build at the end of the airport runway!!  Henry Lister

I'm with Henry Lister on this. I was on the Transportation Board when Meadowmont was approved by the Town. (I voted against it because I didn't think it was dense enough or mixed enough.) The entire thing was based on the principle of residents, employees, and customers there getting around without single-occupant cars. Of course the lynchpin of this master plan was a transit line and station at the heart of the development.Any Meadowmont resident who doesn't want to live near transit is in the wrong neighborhood. I wouldn't be surprised if they were sold a false (or misleading) bill of goods from their realtors. It wouldn't be the first time. (Right, Carrboro anexees?)

Id be happy to assist on the 27th. Please let me know how I can contact you. Tom Ed White, resident on S Estes

Hi Tom: Shoot me an email at geoff at stuebegreen dot com. (Obfuscated, obviously, to foil spam bots.) And I encourage anyone else interested to do so as well.  Thanks.

Any stop along the route will become another park-ride lot for UNC.

That's explicitly the case for Leigh Village and other stops in Durham. But I don't see it happening in this area. My understanding is that UNC is hoping to push the park-and-ride lots out further so it can change the Friday Center from parking into additional buildings. Meanwhile, there's not a whole lot of space to put any park-and-ride in at Meadowmont, and I can tell you for sure that the owners of the parking lots which support the retail and office space aren't going to let it be used for a park-and-ride.

Why wasn't Meadowmont simply built with more housing to accomodate people that work at UNC?  There's no need to have a park and ride if people can just ride (or even bike or walk from that close). The last time I checked, which was about three days ago on the Tony Hall  Associates real estate website, there were seven townhouses in Meadowmont currently for sale that were both greater than 4,000 square feet and costing more then $900,000.  What are the chances that the person that buys a 4,000 square foot $900,000 townhouse is going to be a UNC employee?  And this isn't just the result of the current housing slump.  It's been like that for years.  When I first started searching to buy a first home 6-8 years ago I discovered how crazy the housing was in this area.  Million dollar townhouses have been for sale at Meadowmont, just 1-2 miles from UNC, for at least 6-8 years straight.You either provide middle/lower income people housing they can afford in an area that has other amenities they want or else you're not in favor of providing affordable housing.  This is what puzzles me about the "affordable housing" threads, as if it's some mystery.  How do we get affordable housing?  By providing housing that is both affordable and that people that need affordable housing will buy.  It's simple.  And it's contrary to how this area has been developing for a long time.

"Why wasn't Meadowmont simply built with more housing to accomodate people that work at UNC?"Maybe you should ask the developer that question.  But I think you already know the answer.

I don't know the answer for certain since I wasn't following local issues back then but I can take an educated guess based on how things have worked the past several years when I was following local issues and my guess wouldn't involve developers unless perhaps back then developers were allowed to do anything they wanted without approval from local authorities.  Pretty much every time since I've been paying attention new developments create more non-affordable housing then affordable housing, while simultaneously lessening the available land on which to build future housing (and thereby implicitly making it harder to build more affordable housing in the future). Someone said that Meadowmont was meant to be walkable.  I don't get that.  Other than the area with the shops you can walk/drive in Meadowmont and not see a soul walking.  It's like an episode of The Twilight Zone. If you build expensive housing with expensive stores nearby and high property taxes to boot then you get a place with less affordable housing.  It's just arithmetic.

Local government can't set price controls on housing, so in most cases (including at Meadowmont) the free market determines what housing is built.  The Town Council did make decisions about how many dwellings, whether attached or detached, but the rest was up to the developer and his builders.  And (understandably) they went for the highest profit margin scenario (i.e. big expensive houses mostly).

Oh come on.  Of course the town government doesn't literally set the prices but the kind of development it approves has a big...very big...effect on what the prices end up being.  This area could have been developed differently in a way that was more affordable but at very turn a different choice is made because the area as a whole prefers other things to affordability.  Fine, but let's just be up front about it. Instead we have afforable housing brainstorming sessions and force new developments to have 15% "affordable" housing to soothe our conscience and then pretend that makes a difference.

Actually the only meaningful alternative was for Roger Perry to build a large lot suburban subdivision, which would also have been extremely expensive.  I'm sure the Town Council could have reconfigured Meadowmont eight ways from Sunday, but the bottomline is that Roger's bottomline was the determining factor in the size and cost of the houses there.  I don't blame Roger for pursuing his profit, though.  I thought you were in favor of that sort of thing, Jose. 

Local government in this area is famous for micromanaging change all the way from how many parking spaces a new business can have down to whether homeowners can cut down trees on their own property.  But you're telling me that when it comes to a giant new proposed housing development the only options the town had was (1) one where the homes were on average really expensive or (2) one where the homes on average were really, really expensive?  That strains credulity, especially since lots of surrounding towns manage it just fine.  (I always wanted to work "strains credulity" into a sentence.)  I suppose next you're going to tell me that you have some oceanfront property in downtown Carrboro that you'd like to sell. Lots of people in this area don't want to us to be like surrounding areas and yet it's surrounding areas that accommodate the people that keep our area going.  There's nothing wrong with being what we are but let's just be honest about it.

In Charlotte, there are some Light rail stations which have park and ride and some of which do not. They have not had a problem with people trying to park illegally at intermediate stations when there is park and ride further out. On some trips to Charlotte I've taken the Light rail from park and ride to Uptown to avoid paying for uptown parking -- the rail fare is less.

Can someone help me to understand how this plan is impacted by the Commissioners decision not to allow us to vote on the sales tax increase to support public transit?  I was disappointed that we were not even afforded the chanced to vote on this.  It seems to me that the threshold for allowing a referedum to be held should be very low.  I heard an interview with Commissioner Hemminger in which she stated that there was not enough info available on financial plans.  Couldn't we have used the time between now and November to clarify.  As I understand the tax would have been used to build towards transit solutions for 2020.  Every year we postpone starting to save for that must move the implementation back a year.I suspect when 2020 rolls around we will be wishing that we had started to save now.

Right on all counts, Jeff.  Next Spring during the County Commissioner Democratic Primaries, we should be out asking pointedly about when the various candidates intend to have this referendum on the ballot.

with their "economic development" sales tax referendum. This is a BOCC that has bought into "economic development" as a holy goal without actually defining what they mean by "economic development" or consideration of other highly important building blocks to a resilient future - some of which are actually real economic development opportunities.

Results could come sooner than 2020.  The financial plan which went before the Orange commissioners contains new or expanded bus service which would be put in place relatively quickly after passage of a referendum. Mark C pointed this out last month in some detail.  I sat next to Commissioner Steve Yuhasz at a meeting of some Durham and Orange governments this past week during a discussion of the potential for referenda. I pointed out to him that Chapel Hill Transit was looking at cutting $800,000 of service to his constituents. While the sales tax, by state law, can't be spent to replace that service, the size of the cuts should show him that CH Transit is financially stressed. BTW, the financial plan is now called "The Bus and Rail Transit Plan for Orange County," at the specific request of the Public Transit Partners Committee, with reps from Carrboro, CH, and UNC-CH. Ed Harrison

Good job with your WCHL commentary on this topic yesterday, Geoff.

Thanks, Ruby.

WCHL's story, which may have run today (I'm 600 miles away) had interviews with Geoff and with Hank Rodenburg. I was interviewed at some length.  The print version I can see on WCHL's website appears to have some "editing issues" (trying to be polite here) and inserts a statement with no previous reference. Would be delighted if someone would send me a link to Geoff's commentary or any others on the topic, as I can't find them on WCHL's site. Ed Harrison

So the Meadowmont homeowners' association hosted the community's monthly "Bagel Brunch" today, and the topic of discussion was the upcoming Town Council meeting on LRT routing. The HOA gave a short, informative presentation of what was going to take place at the meeting, and there were some questions asked and answers given, some by me. The attendance at these gatherings generally skews older, and this meeting was no exception -- I was clearly the youngest, and I'm in my, err, mid-30's.I came in expecting to find unanimous opposition to the routing through Meadowmont, but I found there was a nice mix of opinions. Some people clearly supported the route outside Meadowmont, but there were quite a few others who favored running the LRT through Meadowmont, for a variety of reasons. Folks seemed to appreciate the benefits it would provide to Meadowmont, and at least a couple did mention to those who opposed it that it was in Meadowmont's plans from the beginning. I tried to explain that there was space to run the LRT through Meadowmont and that it would make the area even more pedestrian friendly, and no one really disagreed. So we'll see what happens.

Geoff is correct that many Meadowmont residents support the light rail line through the neighborhood. The opponents have been vocal, but there's never been a survey of neighborhood residents.

Clearly, many of us who bought houses in Meadowmont did so because we wanted to live in a pedestrian-friendly, transit-friendly neighborhood. The promise of an easily accesible mass-transit line was a big selling point.

The transit line was on the Meadowmont master plan well before the first house was ever built. It was thoroughly discussed by town leaders and planners, and it was prominently displayed on the neighborhood plats and sales brochures.

It's hard to understand why anybody would buy a house in Meadowmont, then almost immediately start lobbying against an amenity that was always among Meadowmont's most prominent features. It would be especially unfortunate if this vocal group of NIMBYs is allowed to stymie a plan that many neighborhood residents welcome and support.

Here, on Orangepolitics. I also have a new website devoted to the routing of the proposed light-rail line through Meadowmont.

While there is little question that a light rail stop in Meadowmont will serve the Meadowmont community well and perhaps that is enough because of the size of Meadowmont, will it serve the rest of Orange County well?  I have been concerned that Meadowmont is essentially a one-way-in one-way-out community with access only from the South.  I would think for this stop to work for the rest of us, access needs to be better.  Access should have been better anyway.

What future plans are there for the rail to run north of 85/40 ? How long will rural resident pay for this before they find it worthwhile to utilize?Thankscw Weakness is provocative.
"One of the most noble things you can do is kill the enemy."-Maj. Douglas Zembiec

In previous transportation plans there was a future phase component that included use of existing rail from Carrboro to old University station continuing on main Amtrak line to join up with the commuter rail from Durham to Raleigh all on existing rail. You can stand up by Carolina Inn and see the right of way from near Carolina Inn to coal eclectricity generation plant. Would be possible to extend the rail from Carrboro to near Carolina Inn. In fact years ago they brought in a deisel powered passenger car and gave rides up and down the line from Carrboro up to University Station. I am sad and puzzled why I don't see anything about this phase in the current plans. Without this phase I would think rural Orange County residentss would have problems supporting a sales tax increase to support rail transportation that does not serve the rural population. This phase would have proivided huge opportunities for sustainable tight dense growth clustered around rail stations preserving surrounding countryside in rural part of county rather than urban sprawl growth.Their are plans to build a rail station in Hillsborough for Amtrak service but this would not be part of the Triangle transportation plan.

"Without this phase I would think rural Orange County residentss would have problems supporting a sales tax increase to support rail transportation "This in conjuntion w/ a mirad of other angsts the 2nd district feel are being forced to pay for by the will of the 1st. It is   Weakness is provocative.
"One of the most noble things you can do is kill the enemy."-Maj. Douglas Zembiec


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