Chapel Hill Town Council member Ed Harrison says the Federal Transportation Administration’s approval of the Durham-Orange Light Rail plan clears a major hurdle for the project.
“It’s an initial vote of confidence,” he says. “If Triangle Transit and the region were a [political] candidate, it would be like getting through the primary.”
Harrison is also vice chair of the Triangle Transit Board of Trustees.
Back in 2005, a News & Observer reporter called him a “transportation wonk,” and Harrison says he’ll take that.
Harrison lives on Newton Drive, on the Chapel Hill side of Durham County. He happily mentions that he’s surrounded by future station areas for the 17-mile light rail system, which would run from UNC to Alston Avenue in Durham, near North Carolina Central University.
He’s also happy to mention that, in addition to Tuesday’s letter of approval from the FTA, it has granted Triangle Transit “pre-award authority.”
“What that means is that we are now eligible, as Triangle Transit carries out the project and the planning, for reimbursement of millions and millions of dollars,” says Harrison.
In 2012, construction cost for the light-rail line was estimated at $1.34 billion, as reported in Wednesday’s News & Observer.
Harrison says Orange and Durham residents should be prepared for a lengthy process that involves the construction of an exclusive right-of-way.
“That’s an expensive proposition,” he says, “and that would be the case if it were a bus as well.”
But the potential for cost savings over the long run is significant, he adds.
“There are a lot of buses carrying people into Orange County’s major employment center, the UNC campus, every day,” he says. “Over six thousand people. All those buses are replaced by one single train line. And the buses can then be moved elsewhere in Chapel Hill and Carrboro for use.”
While Harrison gets a lot of positive feedback from citizens about light rail between the neighboring counties, he sometimes has to defend the plan.
When he does, he points out that studies over the last 10 years show that public transportation has made areas around UNC a lot less congested with traffic than before, even with all the development that’s occurred there during that time.
“If you want to maintain that trend, we’re running out of the ability to do it with buses,” he says.
He goes on to say that a train would potentially carry 450 people, whereas a double bus only carries 90. That means one-fifth the number of drivers would be needed for the same number of commuters.
But it takes more than just facts and solid projections to get the go-ahead from the Federal Transit Administration. It also takes showing them some money. That’s why a planned 28-mile train line between Durham and Raleigh failed to get FTA approval back in 2006.
“It could not show the Federal Transit Administration that there was a source of local funding,” he says. “In that case, the voters of Orange County and Durham County made sure, this time around, that we do have that.”
He’s talking about a half-cent sales tax in Orange and Durham Counties to pay toward the light rail project, thanks to voter approval.
Not surprisingly, Harrison anticipates a struggle for state funding. He says that’s the reason that some Transit board members and other rail proponents are going to the The East Coast P3 Infrastructure Conference in Charlotte next week — to discuss alternative financing methods and public-private partnerships.http://chapelboro.com/news/development/ch-town-council-wonk-praises-federal-light-rail-approval/
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.
CHAPEL HILL – Triangle Transit has started a new program to improve bus performance called Bus on Shoulder.
The new program is exactly as it sounds: it will allow buses to drive on the shoulders of roads during heavy traffic. Triangle Transit Public Affairs Officer Brad Schulz says the program improves the bus system.
“When the bus can use the shoulder, it keeps them more on schedule and allows them to perform their duties at work,” he says.
Drivers are allowed to use their discretion when driving on the shoulders during heavy traffic. Once the traffic has slowed to below 35 mph, the buses are authorized by the NCDOT to use the shoulders as long as they maintain a safe speed. So far Schulz says it’s all gone well.
“We’ve had over 1000 uses of Bus on Shoulder,” he says, “and we successfully have had no incidents involving any of our operators or anyone in a car.”
The two routes that Triangle Transit offers in Chapel Hill are the 800 route to Southpoint and the Chapel Hill-Raleigh Express, though only the Chapel Hill-Raleigh Express saw an increase in the number of riders this year.
Schulz says the “Bus on Shoulder” program is a convenient way to improve bus time and provide reliable transportation–and he says implementation was cost effective.
“The cost of this was approximately $2000 per shoulder mile,” he says. “We believe this has really been a cost-effective improvement to enhance transit, to enhance the reliability to commuters.”
For more information click here.http://chapelboro.com/news/traffic/triangle-transit-uses-new-bus-shoulder-program/
CHAPEL HILL - Triangle Transit General Manager David King said that he questions the validity of recent criticism directed toward the proposed Durham-Orange light rail. He said he is confident about the need for the light rail, given the projected population growth for the area in the decades to come.
The 17-mile-rail line would begin at Alston Ave. near North Carolina Central’s Campus and end at UNC Hospitals. The track would generally follow the North Carolina Railroad Corridor, which is 15-501, I-40, and NC 54.
A panel of experts with backgrounds in transportation, engineering and urban planning recently appeared before Wake County Commissioners.
The Chapel Hill News reported that the experts said that the region lacks the population density, traffic congestion and ridership for a light rail. The experts acknowledged by phone that they hadn’t spent as much time reviewing information about the Orange-Durham light rail plan. However, they said it was difficult to justify the need for the $1.4 billion project based on what they reviewed in the regional financial data.
King said he believed the men weren’t well-versed in the matters concerning Orange and Durham Counties. He added that the light rail is outside the realm of Wake County.
“The point is that someone asked a question about Durham and Orange, and these folks [the three experts] declined to comment because that is not what they had come prepared to talk about,” King said. “Those three folks were here to talk about Wake County.”
Though critics have said that the area is not dense enough to require a light rail system, King said that he believed the community should think of the necessity for the project in terms of growth, citing the population increase that has occurred in the area since the 1990s.
Between 2020 and 2030, Orange and Durham Counties are projected to grow at a rate of 13.3 percent, according to the N.C. Office of State Budget and Management.
“This system is not aiming at where we are today but where we will be 12, 20 and 30 years from now,” he stated.
King said he believed that having a light rail option would appeal to environmentally-conscious commuters as well.
There is already substantial bus ridership between Orange and Durham Counties, King explained, which he believed would get an improved transportation experience with light rail.
“70,000 rides a day are already occurring on the bus system. A lot of those are in this corridor will shift to light rail once that system opens.”
King added that travel between the two areas is constant, whereas other cities see heavy traffic in one direction during the morning and vice versa at night.
Triangle Transit is moving forward with applying for federal funding. The first phase of the process is submitting an application to the Federal Transit Administration by December 20 for authorization to proceed into the environment planning phase. King anticipates to hear a decision in 45 days or less.http://chapelboro.com/news/development/triangle-transit-leader-defends-light-rail-plan/
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.http://chapelboro.com/news/local-government/tta-oc-transit-plan-off-to-a-good-start/