Light rail, redux

Back in June, you may recall that I wrote a blog post (and a commentary on WCHL) about that month's planned decision by Chapel Hill Town Council on the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for Triangle Transit's proposed light-rail line connecting Durham and Chapel Hill. To recap briefly, the two choices are (a) running the light-rail line through a transit corridor reserved when Town Council approved Meadowmont in 1995, with a station right in front of the Harris Teeter on Meadowmont Lane; or (b) running the light rail line down the south side of NC-54 with a stop in the proposed Hillmont development (formerly known as Woodmont) just east of Barbee Chapel. For various reasons, the decision was delayed, but it's coming up again.

Town Council will hold a public forum on Monday, November 14, regarding the Locally Preferred Alternative. There's been some hard-working Meadowmont residents opposing the project, but most of the opposition have come from the residents of the Cedars Retirement Community, which is not surprising because it will run just to the north of some of the homes in the complex. (While unfortunate, the Cedars was required by Town Council to inform purchasers that a transit line would be running behind their homes; it would be interesting to know if they did so, or if they just brushed it off saying "oh, that'll never happen.") The current plan is to bring the matter before Town Council for a final decision in January, but you know how plans can change...

As a Meadowmont resident, I'm strongly in favor of the Meadowmont routing, One of the main reasons my wife and I decided to buy a home in Meadowmont was because the light-rail would run near our house. I won't repeat the other reasons in support of running the line through Meadowmont here and simply direct you to my original blog post on Orangepoltiics. I plan to submit a letter to Town Council on Friday and will post it here when it's done. I encourage all other supporters of the Meadowmont routing to write to Town Council as well. If anyone in or near Meadowmont would be interested in joining me in making our caes before Town Council on November 17, please let me know. Thanks.


but I'm with you in spirit and happy to write a letter if that'll help

Thanks James. Any and all public comment would be helpful -- even a short email to the Council would hopefully help tip the scales.

Why are people opposed to the light rail serving Meadowmont? It seems like a boon for the people who live there, and will give Cedars residents the ability access medical services, shopping, etc., without having to rely on bus service. I assume people are concerned about noise, but modern light rail technology is pretty quiet. Other than that, I can't imagine why anyone would oppose light rail. 

Please come to the Town Council meeting and say this!
I can briefly summarize the issues. The most relevant one, I think, is that the negative environmental impact on the wetlands behinds Meadowmont and the Rizzo Center might be too significant. I think this card is being used opportunistically -- I don't think small families living in a 4,000 square foot house who have to drive to get everywhere have much grounds to complain about excessive environmental impact -- but that's politics. If this route does get pushed to the next phase, there will be a detailed environmental impact study, and if that disqualifies it, so be it.
The other reasons fall into the category of what I'll call "not wanting anything to change." I'll quote verbatim from my homeowners' association letter opposing the route (which i voted against, obviously). (Alternative C1 is the route through Meadowmont; C2 is the route through Hillmont and down NC-54):

  • "The C2 alternative would be able to support a larger LRT ridership from the future developments between Meadowmont and Hwy. 40."
  • "The LRT would cross six streets, including Meadowmont Lane, which at the crossing point consists of four lanes and a median"
  • "The proximity to Rashkis Elementary School and the Cedars of Chapel Hill, a senior living community to the rail’s location"

And some notes from one of the leaders of the no-LRT-in-Meadowmont gang in a letter he wrote to Town Council (and spoke in amended form at a Town Council meeting in June):

  • "The current plans would also create a multi-year construction project in Meadowmont, considerably disrupting its greenspace and would forever create an unwelcome level of congestion in the Community through issues of parking, added noise, pollution and traffic"
  • "While recognizing that such projects might be appropriate for some cities, C1 is a design whose costs to Meadowmont, the surrounding environment, especially the wetlands, and the pocketbook are too prohibitive for it to be a success in its current form."
  • "Meadowmont riders could easily travel a short distance to the Woodmont area in order to utilize its services"

Of all of these rationales, the last is the most ridiculous, but I'll get into that in my letter. (Well, some of the other ones are ridiculous, like proximity to Rashkis and the Cedars, but anyone who's tried crossing NC-54 on foot at that stretch knows it's not easy.)

The Conservation Trust of NC and the NC Natural Heritage Program have spoken at The Cedars against the route going through the wetlands (C-1). The Health Center at The Cedars was built across the tracks from the rest of The Cedars. (?!) A bus filled with those opposed to the meadowmont site will be at the Town meeting. I welcome the meadowmont route and I live at The Cedars but I am definitely in the minority. 

Flo are you going to the Town Council meeting Monday night?  I can't make it over from Raleigh, but I hope to come to the December followup meeting.  It's nice to know that a former Orange County Commissioner is over at the Cedars.

estimated ridership is one of the more important evaluation factors to federal grant funding. If the proposed route is moved to one with less projected ridership, the likelyhood of the project failing increases.

The offiical TTA forecast projects higher ridership at Hillmont (formerly known as Woodmont). It's unclear to me  what exactly that higher ridership projection is based on, since it will have to be drawn almost entirely from the site itself -- there's little connectivity to neighborhing areas, and my sense is they don't want to be connected to Hillmont. No on'e going to want to cross NC-54 from Meadowmont to get there either. There's been speculation that a  park-and-ride lot could be sited there, but given the plans for larger park-and-rides elsewhere, and the growing traffic congestion at that stretch of NC-54, that doesn't sound practical.

Dear Mayor Kleinschmidt and Council Members:
Four years ago, when my wife accepted a job at UNC Hospital and we began planning our move to Chapel Hill with our young children, we looked for a neighborhood close to the hospital with sidewalks and good access to public transportation. We settled on Meadowmont because it met all of these criteria, and because sixteen years ago this Council made the wise decision to reserve a transit corridor through the edge of the neighborhood. We bought our house in the hope that we and our children would be able to walk to a nearby light rail line and travel to UNC, to Duke, and to points in between without having to deal with ever-increasing traffic or the dangers of having our teenagers drive themselves.
This Council should reaffirm its long-standing decision to run the proposed light-rail line through Meadowmont for the following reasons:

  • This route was integral to the Council’s decision to allow Meadowmont to build at higher density, and it will cause the least disruption to Chapel Hill residents’ settled expectations.
  • The route through Meadowmont has a better chance of getting significant ridership than the Hillmont stop.
  • The route through Meadowmont will improve traffic safety, will pose no danger to children or the elderly, and will benefit all residents.
  • The comparative environmental impact of the Meadowmont and Hillmont routes is uncertain, and this Council should not eliminate the Meadowmont route until a full environmental study is completed.

It is important to remember that this plan should not surprise a single Meadowmont resident. The transit corridor has been on every official map of the Meadowmont development since the initial approval of the Master Land Use Plan in 1995, long before the first resident moved in and the first shop opened for business. Special road signs throughout Meadowmont display a map of the transit corridor and direct the curious to call the town’s Planning Department for further information. In fact, when the Cedars came before Town Council for a Special Use Permit to build on land along the transit corridor, the Council required that the purchasers of the homes along the transit corridor be given special notice of the corridor’s existence.
Meadowmont's Master Land Use Plan was approved in 1995, and in the ensuing 17 years the neighborhood has developed in close conformity with these original plans. The Cedars Retirement Community, the elementary school, and most houses, apartments and offices are in their planned locations. Everyone who moved into Meadowmont had fair notice, as we did, that a transit line was planned. By contrast, the residents of Downing Creek and the other neighborhoods near Hillmont certainly did not expect a rail line to come near their property, especially after the issue was decided by Town Council in 1995.
The transit corridor was a part of Town Council’s effort to make Meadowmont an integrated part of Chapel Hill. Unlike some other developments, Meadowmont was designed with multiple connections to other neighborhoods for pedestrians, bicyclists, cars and transit users. The transit corridor is a crucial part of this connectivity plan.
The placement of the corridor was an inseparable part of the Council’s decision to grant dense development rights to Meadowmont’s developers. Given that Meadowmont’s development has hewn closely to its plan, the light-rail line should run along the original planned alignment absent compelling reasons to do otherwise.
No transit system is successful without riders, and a stop at Meadowmont offers the light-rail line its greatest possibility for success. With more than 1,000 residential units housing more than 2,000 people and hundreds of daily visitors using Meadowmont’s offices, restaurants and retail shops, Meadowmont will be the largest mixed-use community along the new line. Most of Meadowmont’s shops and offices are adjacent to the proposed stop, and the Master Plan envisions two more office buildings right nearby. The UNC Wellness Center and the Rizzo Center are two very popular local destinations that would be well-served by the station. By contrast, a station at Hillmont would service few Meadowmont residents and none of its businesses.
One example is the popular Brixx restaurant in Meadowmont Village. It is convenient 0.12 mile walk through a well-lit business district from the restaurant to the proposed Meadowmont station. By contrast, it is a 0.8 mile walk to the proposed Hillmont stop, through an underground pedestrian tunnel west of Meadowmont Lane reached using isolated and unlit walking paths. Houses on two typical streets in Meadowmont – Little Branch, which is closer to the Meadowmont stop, and Old Barn Lane, which is further west, are both well within the 0.5 mile walking distance. Both are much further from a Hillmont station. Overall, according to the 2010 census data, about 1,900 people live within a half-mile of the proposed station, most along Meadowmont’s superb system of sidewalks and greenways.
And then there's the issue of reaching the Hillmont stop. How will people cross NC-54? At Barbee Chapel, the road is eight lanes wide and a total of 128 feet. At the standard pedestrian crossing time of 3.5 feet per second, that means a crossing signal would need to be at least 43 seconds long. Alternatives are an underground tunnel or an elevated pedestrian bridge; the first is expensive and the second is inconvenient, hostile to users with disabilities, dangerous when icy, and generally unpleasant. The NC-54 corridor study suggests improvements, but the suggestion for a superstreet at that intersection has not been well-received, and it is hard to imagine what could be done to make that interchange friendly to pedestrians.
At present, the Hillmont area has fewer residences within a half-mile walk of the proposed station stop. While the “as the crow flies” distance for some may be reasonable, the circuitousness of the local roads makes the actual walkable distance far greater. Moreover, Hillmont’s SUP provides for limited retail, restricting the attractiveness of Hillmont as a stop for visitors. As for the land north of NC-54, the University of North Carolina has no public plans for the Lloyd plot, and any Ayden Court development would be a long walk from the station and, presumably, insufficiently dense to provide many transit users. From a ridership perspective, there’s simply no comparison.
The light rail line will be safe. For many years, my wife and young children lived near two heavily-travelled light rail lines in Brookline, Massachusetts, right near an elementary school. We had no problem crossing the tracks multiple times per day -- and the kids loved to ride the trains.
The proposed light rail’s passage through a populated area will not put drivers or pedestrians in danger. Its route will be clearly marked, pedestrian walk signs and traffic lights will direct traffic, and the trains are hard to miss. Given the route layout, the trains will not be moving fast. The portion of Meadowmont Lane where the LRT will cross to head east towards Durham is does not get much pedestrian traffic. A soccer dad or mom speeding down Meadowmont Lane and talking on the cell phone while driving kids to school – a frequent sight – is far more dangerous.
Some letter-writers have discussed the supposed danger the rail line will pose to children, but that is an unfounded claim. The proximity to Rashkis Elementary School is a nonissue. There are only a few apartments in the Bell Meadowmont complex which are inside Orange County, and the other residences in the CHCCS school district lie outside of the transit corridor. They pose no more danger to children than the multitude of cars driving throughout Meadowmont.
The residents of the Cedars retirement community will continue to have easy access to the amenities in Meadowmont Village. It should not be more difficult to cross 22 feet of track than it already is to cross five lanes of roadway on 79-foot-wide Meadowmont Lane.
Finally, the LRT will offer a safe form of independent transportation to the two groups of people who have limited mobility -- teenagers and senior citizens. The Cedars’ own newsletter points out that pre-planned group trips have had poor attendance, and a nearby LRT stop would give residents there easy access to UNC Hospital, Duke Hospital, DPAC, South Square and other locations on their own schedule. This increased mobility will be a boon for people of all ages who cannot or do not want to drive.
Cost considerations
The Council should deemphasize the projected cost difference between the two alternatives. The $40 million difference is small in the context of the a billion dollar plus project, and only 25% of that money will come from local sources. It is also unclear whether the cost estimates include the price of the costly intersection improvements that would be necessary to make a station accessible from Meadowmont. Moreover, any estimates at this stage are necessarily tentative, and a difference of a couple of percentage points should not be dispositive.
In any event, the price differential may be the difference between an LRT system that has a vibrant, interesting, attractive and ridership-boosting destination at Meadowmont, and an LRT system that stops alongside a busy highway. When the TTA performs a more detailed look at the two alternatives and performs extensive analysis of the ridership potentials at the stops, I am confident that Meadowmont will prove to be a more attractive choice and a better candidate for federal funding, making it well worth the extra money.
Environmental impact
I do not profess to be an expert on the differing environmental impact of the two options and their impacts on the wetlands along the LRT route. However, any analysis of the environmental impact of either route must take into account not just the potential negative impact on wetlands but on the positive effects of the options on carbon emissions and automobile use.
Both C1 and C2 traverse wetlands. While C1 may require the construction of a longer section of elevated track over wetlands than C2, it is too early to tell which option will have greater impact on the wetlands, or whether running the light-rail line alongside an existing road as C2 proposes would have substantial environmental benefits. Excluding C1 from consideration because some Meadowmont resident fear the impact on the wetlands would be premature without a much more detailed environmental study.
Moreover, other elements relating to the light-rail line’s complete environmental favor the C1 alignment. For one, C1 has a much better opportunity to encourage commuters and visitors to Chapel Hill to exchange vehicle trips with rail trips. While Meadowmont has thousands of residents, employees and daily visitors within easy walking distance of the proposed Meadowmont station, there is little development near the C2 stop. Meadowmont not only has residents who might commute to Duke or UNC on a high-frequency rail line, it also has offices that will bring commuters and retail outlets and restaurants that will bring in other visitors. Bus service from Meadowmont to other points in Chapel Hill, like Franklin Street and the University Mall area, would move people throughout the Town. These transit trips will take place of car trips both inside and outside Chapel Hill.
At present, it’s hard to see what vehicle trips a Hillmont stop would replace. Even if it is built out – a big question – Hillmont will have neither the commercial nor residential density of Meadowmont, and the highway just to the rail line’s north would stymie future development. Moreover, given its location, a fully-developed Hillmont would encourage sprawl further east and create more congestion down the already crowded NC-54 corridor, particularly if park-and-ride spaces are added to the development. Furthermore, a Hillmont development with a large park-and-ride lot would increase impervious surfaces and water run-off, with potentially greater adverse effects than the C1 traverse.
The TTA’s light rail transit system is an exciting mass transit proposal with great potential benefits for Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina. An LRT system is permanent and expensive, so it is important that stations along the transit line be selected with the overriding goal of securing the long-term success of the system to create a viable transportation alternative in our area. When the dense, mixed-use development proposed at Meadowmont was debated by Town Council in 1995, a fixed-guideway transit system running through its heart was an integral element of its creation. Sixteen years later it remains the best route for a successful transit system. It’s one of the key reasons I moved to Meadowmont, and I urge the Town Council to select the C1 route through Meadowmont as the Locally Preferred Alternative.
Very truly yours,
Geoffrey F. Green

Inspired by your letter, I just sent the following to

I am writing to express my full support for the letter written by Meadowmont resident Geoff Green, as quoted at the vice-chair of the Transportation Board at the time time the master plan for Meadowmont was approved by the Town of Chapel Hill, I can confirm that the connection to regional fixed guideway transit was indeed essential to the approval and also to the intended character of Meadowmont. It is unfortunate that some residents have apparently moved there in direct contradiction to the values on which the neighborhood was founded, but it would be a greater injustice to deprive Chapel Hill of the opportunity to have successful transportation networks for generations to come. I'm also of the opinion that many who oppose change in the short term often find it quite positive in retrospect. I expect this will be the case when we have a functioning regional transit system that connects Medaowmont to Durham, RTP and Raleigh, but also to UNC, the hospital, and hopefully Carolina North. I think we will also see the importance of regional transit emerge in the development of the Chapel Hill 2020 plan. Please let that be a prompt for us to look ahead to a healthy future with a connected community that makes it easy for people to get around in a variety of ways. Thank you for your hard work and consideration of this issue.SIncerely,Ruby SinreichFormer chair, Chapel Hill Planning and Transportation Boards138 Ridge TrailChapel Hill, NC  27516919-883-5224 

I also was inspired to write a letter supporting the Meadowmont alignment. Have you seen Yonah Freemark's latest analsysi: Why doesn't the light rail extend to downtown Chapel Hill or Carroboro? I haven't studied this latest proposal yet, so don't know what their plans are. I'm sure the tunneling would be expensive, but perhaps a spur route (perhaps from the Hamilton Road stop) would help. Two additional points from my letter: * Recent evidence suggests that younger voters no longer see car culture as desirable. While hybrid/electric technology may keep driving relatively affordable, people will still gravitate toward urban, dense places. Light rail built on the "park-and-ride" model won't work.* Our environmental responsibilites are larger than what we do in our individual community. If we don't support density in Chapel Hill, we're just subsidizing the destruction of forest in neighboring counties. The greenest place in the U.S., is New York: 

MLouis,I like that very much.  We need to remind folks of that much more often.  Thanks for putting a smile on my face tonight.

This reminds me of the guy in Southern Village who bought a house near a bus stop and then threatened the city council  to have it stopped on the grounds that busses are a threat to child safety.  It's a never-ending source of, er, amusement that people buy into a new neighborhood and then try to shut down any further development such as mass transit.On the mass transit issue, I got into an argument with a guy who thought free busses, mass transit, and poor parking was part of the town's master plan to bars altogether! 

Given the scarce resource era we are entering, why would the Town want to lock itself into the "local preferred alternative for the light rail alignment" for Chapel Hill? It would be better to keep open the possibility of an upgraded bus system using roads.  Such a "best bus" system would join Durham and Chapel Hill without the high costs of building a fixed guideway.  This so called "transit system management system" or "best bus" as referred to by the professionals, is simply an upgraded bus system without the expense of a guideway that could serve Durham and Chapel Hill and points in between.  Wouldn't we rather put our transit dollars toward a system that would serve Carolina North and other commercial centers in Chapel Hill as well?  The present high priced fixed guideway proposal links Durham destinations with Meadowmont and UNC Hospitals, while missing most of our commercial centers.  If asked to help to fund such a transit system through an additional transit tax, which route and which technology would Orange County voters favor?Julie McClintock

Very good points Ms. McClintock this proposal sounds alot like the one Wake County is discussing whereby they split the tax for fixed mass transportion(buses) then if times get better we can discuss the shining new light rail tax. If the Commissioners go with what is on paper now then its a NO vote for me.Some of the numbers I have seen raise questions as to what crystal ball were these people looking at?

Wake had three parts to its transit plan1) Rapid bus expansion (2013)2) commuter rail Garner to West Durham (2018)3) Intra Wake County light rail (2025) what they have put on the back burner is item #3. They have NOT dropped intra county rail. Durham County's approved transit plan was:1) Rapid bus expansion (2013)2) commuter rail Garner to West Durham (2018)3) Durham to Chapel Hill light rail (2025 or later) 

I've never heard of this "best bus" system. Are you talking about Bus Rapid Transit? BRT is fine, but it has lower carrying capacity, and might not work as well during rush hour as a four- or six-train light rail would. Also, UNC is the largest employer in Orange County by far, and the proposed light rail line serves UNC fairly well. Adding a spur line to Carrboro or downtown Chapel Hill would require extensive tunneling, which would raise the price of the project. The transit tax also supports improved bus service in the rest of Chapel Hill and region. I, for one, am amazed that I can't get to the airport on public transit on Sunday, or early in the morning/late in the evening, when planes are still arriving to the airport. The transit tax will allow for TTA, and local bus lines, to access a more sustainable source of funding for operations, which will help out everyone living in the area.Also, the light rail wouldn't open until 2025 at the earliest, at which time we'll have 65,000 more people in Chapel Hill, at least, and potentially more if airplane travel becomes prohibitively expensive due to rising fuel costs. If we want to maintain the rural way of life in Orange and neighboring counties, we'll need more places to put people in Chapel Hill itself, which means more housing and greater density. Light rail is better at moving large groups of people than buses, and by operating on its own line, doesn't interfere with traffic.

estimates are 35,000 to 40,000 lower as a result of the ongoing economic slowdown.  I think that may mean that the 54East-like projects that were hoped for in Hillmont (east of Barbee Chapel Rd) might not reach the drawing board.

Even 35-40K is a lot of new residents. Keeping the Meadowmont stop, though, would ensure that the light rail serves existing communities.


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