Light Rail Project Clears Hurdle

The light rail project connecting Chapel Hill and Durham has cleared a major hurdle.

Natalie Murdock is the spokesperson on the project for GoTriangle. She says the Federal Transit Administration signed off on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement last Thursday.

“Essentially, this allows us to go forward and show the public everything that we’ve been working on at a very intense pace,” she says, “taking a four-year process and really trying to whittle that down into two years.”

Murdock says this draft statement focused on potential environmental impacts along the pathway from Chapel Hill to Durham.

“Throughout those 17 miles, we did have a number of environmentally-sensitive areas,” she says. “In this document, you will see our recommendation as to how we can offset some of those environmental impacts.

“And also ways that we can try to avoid impacts to communities and institutions.”

Murdock adds work has narrowed down on the potential path of the tracks.

The funding for the project is coming from local, state, and federal funds. Murdock says that will follow a 25-25-50 format, with 25 percent from the local level through a sales tax increase already approved by Orange and Durham County voters, 25 percent from the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and 50 percent to come from the federal government.

A public comment period will open for 45 days after the formal FTA approval, which is expected on Friday.

Murdock says that will set off the next chain of events on the timeline.

“That final document will be finalized around February 2016,” she says. The final environmental-impact document approval will lead to additional authorization being sought from the FTA regarding engineering. “At that time, if the federal government allows us to proceed with the engineering, then in 2019 we will pursue 50 percent funding from the federal government and begin construction in 2019.”

The public comment period will include two public information sessions and two public hearings. The Friday Center will host an information session on September 15 and a public hearing on September 29.

“We need to hear from the public how they think the project will help their community,” Murdock says, “what concerns they have about how it will impact their community; if they think it will impact their access to work; if it will impact the access that customers will have to a business owner’s business.

“Those are the types of comments that we do need to hear from the public.”

You can view the draft proposal here.

Lavelle, Other Electeds Tour Future Light Rail Line

The light-rail line connecting Durham and Chapel Hill is still more than a decade away from becoming a reality – but planners are already hammering out the details about the specific path that line will trace, and they’re hoping to have some of those questions answered this spring.

With that in mind, about 10 elected officials and other municipal staff – including Carrboro mayor Lydia Lavelle – went on a bus tour earlier this week to trace the proposed line for themselves.

Mayor Lavelle spoke to WCHL’s Aaron Keck about the tour and the proposal on Friday.


Planners are seeking public opinion now about the proposed line – trying to balance the needs of commuters, businesses and residents with a larger concern for protecting environmentally sensitive areas. When it’s completed, the light-rail line will connect Chapel Hill and the UNC campus with Duke University and downtown Durham.

Durham Orange Light Rail Transit Project Map

To learn more about the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project and to offer your feedback and input, visit

Triangle Transit Holds Light Rail Open House

Triangle Transit invited the public to give input on the proposed 17-mile light rail line extending from UNC Hospitals to east Durham, on Wednesday afternoon at the Friday Center.

Katharine Eggleston, transportation engineer for Triangle Transit, presented possible routes for the rail line.

“The most important news we have tonight is that the C1 alternative has been eliminated,” said Eggleston.

Officials were considering this route that crosses Little Creek. The Army Corps of Engineers does not authorize building the C1 route, which would cross Army Corps’ property. Three alternative routes at Little Creek are still on the table.

People walked around talking to transit officials and looking at information stations, which had maps and key questions officials are considering.

Five key questions:

  • To build or not to build the light rail line
  • Which rail route to build at Little Creek
  • Which route to build at New Hope Creek
  • Where to build the station at Duke/VA Medical Centers
  • Where to build the Rail Operations and Maintenance Facility


Patrick McDonough, a Planning Manager from Triangle Transit, said he is hearing a lot of questions about the environmental impact.

“Folks are interested in, ‘How are we crossing the creeks? How many acres of wetlands are impacted, and what are the different types of impacts?’” McDonough said.

John Kent has been involved in a committee that advises local governments on planning for New Hope Creek, and he volunteers to monitor the creek’s water quality. He came to hear results of Triangle Transit’s environmental studies. Kent feels the environmental analysis should go deeper.

“Fragmenting habitat is one thing that needs to be looked at more closely,” said Kent in an interview.

You can find a visual overhead tour of the light rail project here. A Triangle Transit website says the line “could start (operation) in 2025/2026.” You can find out more and send comments at the website,

The next public session is on Thursday from 4 to 7 pm at the Durham Station Transportation Center. That’s at 515 W Pettigrew Street in Durham.

More Sales Tax, Less Grant Money For OC Bus And Rail Plan

HILLSBOROUGH- In their 2013 report to the board, Triangle Transit officials offered Orange County Commissioners both good news and bad regarding funding for the Orange County Bus and Rail Plan.

John Tallmadge is Triangle Transit’s director of regional services development. He told the Board on Tuesday that sales tax revenues are up, but state and federal funding is down.

“We’re expecting less federal and state dollars to provide these services that are promised in the plan and the projects that are promised in the plan, and that is offset by better actual receipt of sales tax revenues,” said Tallmadge.

The bus and rail plan was adopted in 2012 after voters approved a half-cent sales tax to help fund the plan. Transit planners originally estimated the sales tax would generate $5 million in 2014, but they’ve since revised that estimate up to $6.2 million.

Orange County Interim Manager Mike Talbert said that’s because the economy has bounced back following the Great Recession of 2008.

“We did do these original estimates coming out of the Great Recession and we were very cautious on those estimates,” said Talbert. “From what we know today, that $6 million dollar number on an annual basis is fairly realistic with what we anticipate to happen in the next few years.”

Other sources of transit funding are less certain. The bus and rail plan calls for the expansion of bus service throughout Orange County during the next five years, but Tallmadge said both the state and federal funding models for new buses and park and ride lots have changed substantially in the past 18 months.

The original plan relied on federal grant money to cover 80 percent of the cost to purchase new vehicles. Triangle Transit now estimates that will drop to 30 percent. State money, which was anticipated to provide 10 percent matching funds, is expected to be cut in half. Tallmadge said transit planners hope to continue with the bus service expansion by relying more on local sales tax dollars than grant money.

“We know we’re not going to have the grant funds to do everything we thought we were going to do, but now we have a more optimistic forecast of how much sales tax we’re going to use,” said Tallmadge. “The first thing we should do with that is make the plan whole so that we can deliver what we promised.”

Commissioner Earl McKee questioned the revised financial projections, saying he’s not comfortable with the moving targets in the plan’s funding model. Triangle Transit General Manager David King replied that the financial projections are undergoing constant scrutiny and revision.

“We budget one year at a time, and if we err on the liberal side and end up in the hole, we correct every year for that mistake,” said King. “It’s a very dynamic process and I think the early results are quite good.”

Further, King stressed that none of this is expected to impact planning for either the Hillsborough train station or the 17-mile Durham-to-Orange light rail line included in the transit plan.

The light rail project has been submitted to the Federal Transit Administration for permission to begin environmental impact studies. King said a reply is expected in the next 10 days.

Meanwhile, Triangle Transit and Orange Public Transit are currently developing a plan for new rural bus routes which should be implemented in the fall.

At U.S. Mayors Conference, Kleinschmidt Talks Transit

WASHINGTON – Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt joined Durham Mayor Bill Bell and Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane in Washington, DC this week for the 82nd winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

“This has been a very successful conference,” he says. “We not only had an opportunity to engage with each other and discuss the achievements of cities around the country, but we’ve (also) had great access to the (Obama) administration and cabinet secretaries and their deputies, who help cities like Chapel Hill accomplish the goals we have for ourselves.”

More than 250 mayors from across the country registered for the conference. Participants got to meet with President Obama, Vice President Biden, and other administration officials.

Kleinschmidt says mayors this year were especially concerned with urging the executive branch to take action on issues where Congress is slow or unlikely to move.

“A lot of mayors are concerned that Congress isn’t moving with policy changes that urban areas across the country have been asking for for years,” he says. “And there’s a great level of enthusiasm for the President’s commitment to make things happen now–and use his pen, when he has the ability to do so, in order to make things happen.”

One of those issues is transportation—and on that issue, Kleinschmidt says the Triangle is in a uniquely strong position, because the new Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, is a former mayor of Charlotte.

“As you know, Orange and Durham Counties are submitting a transit plan that includes light rail, (and) we also hope that Wake County will come along (on that) soon,” Kleinschmidt says. “We had some good conversations with Secretary Foxx about that.”

And Kleinschmidt says Foxx also agreed to look into how Chapel Hill might resolve another recent transportation-related issue: whether or not the town is required to allow individuals with permits to carry concealed weapons on public buses.

The Conference of Mayors ended on Friday, but Kleinschmidt is staying in DC for one more day to attend a second conference—the winter meeting of the Mayors Innovation Project. Chapel Hill will play host to that conference’s summer meeting this August.

TTA: OC Transit Plan Off To A Good Start

CHAPEL HILL- Triangle Transit General Manager David King told county commissioners on Tuesday that plans to implement new bus services in Orange County and build a light rail line to Durham are well underway.

The biggest piece of the entire package is, of course, the light rail,” said King. “We are working on planning that not unlike if we were planning a major freeway.”

Orange County’s half-cent sales tax for transit was levied last month, but the first revenues won’t be disbursed until July. Triangle Transit staffers estimate that in the first year taxes and fees will generate $7.3 million dollars in Orange County. Half of that will go towards planning for light rail, slightly less than half will go into a reserve fund, and 10 percent will be used to fund bus services.

But access to state and federal funding is less certain.

Despite rushing to submit an application for federal funding last September, King says Triangle Transit now needs to reapply due to a change in the grant criteria that mandates more environmental study of the light rail route.

Once you enter what everybody calls the federal pipeline, you’ve got two years- 24 months to complete the environmental part of the work,” said King. “The clock starts sticking as soon as they admit you into the pipeline. We feel like we’ve got maybe 26 or 28 months of work that can’t be crammed into 24. We certainly don’t want to take that risk since that is a major metric.”

There are also questions being raised about the impact of the state budget on the plan. The draft Senate version could make it harder for towns and counties to access funding for transit projects like light rail.

Twenty-five percent of the funding needed for the light rail line is slated to come from the state; fifty percent from the federal government.

On a local level, Triangle Transit officials said expanded bus service funded by the plan would likely start next year with added trips on a route from UNC to Southpoint Mall.

Transit planners are also eyeing a Mebane-to-Durham express route in the near future. Earl McKee and Renee Price represent the unincorporated areas of the county, which solidly rejected the transit tax in the 2012 election. Both pressed Triangle Transit officials for assurances that rural residents would be consulted on where new routes should run in central and northern Orange County.

With this paltry amount of $736,000, out of about $7 million, for bus service, there’s no way we can do two routes on this. There’s no way,” said Earl McKee. “So what I want to make sure is, yes, we need data-driven decisions, but that is not the only factor. Service to the citizens that are paying for this must have a priority.”

With that in mind, officials are planning outreach activities throughout the summer to talk to rural residents about where new bus routes should go. They’ll update county commissioners on those efforts sometime this fall.

Transit Tax In Effect In Orange County

ORANGE COUNTY – It’s no joke, the half-cent transit tax approved in November went into effect Monday at midnight.

By a vote of 59 to 41, Orange County residents approved the tax placed on the ballot by the County Commissioners that will supply funding for improved county transportation.

The County has plans for services totaling $661.1 million. Those plans include $131.1 million in new and enhanced bus service, express bus lane improvements on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd ($24.5 million), an Amtrak rail station in Hillsborough ($8.9 million), and a light rail system together with Durham County totaling $496.6 million.

To see a complete breakdown of the plans and some frequently asked questions, click here.