Progress on Durham Orange Light Rail Project

The Durham-Orange Light Rail Project is moving forward after the federal government completed its environmental review.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement was approved by the Federal Transit Authority on February 11. That statement addressed concerns from the public after a draft was released last fall. Jeff Mann, the general manager at GoTriangle, said they received 1,400 comments during that time.

The 17-mile light rail line will run from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke and VA Hospitals in Durham.

The project is expected to cost about $1.5 billion, 50 percent will come from the federal government, 25 percent will come from a local sales tax and the remaining 25 percent would come from the state.

But last year the legislature put a cap of $500,000 on light-rail projects. Mann said he hopes legislators will lift that cap during their next session.

“We are working diligently with our partners and supporters to work with members of the general assembly and with the support of NC DOT and the administration has been very supportive of the efforts to remove that cap in the upcoming short session,” said Mann.

The state Department of Transportation had previously allotted $138 million to the Durham-Orange Light Rail under a 2013 bill that allocated transportation funds based on data and local input.

While state funding for the project is still an issue, Mann said they will continue to move the light rail forward.

“We are not slowing down; we continue to think that the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project is the right transit solution for the corridor,” said Mann.

Some oppose the light rail project, instead favoring a bus rapid transit system that would create dedicated bus lanes for faster travel.

The light rail has been in project develop phase. Mann said the project will now enter an engineering phase for the next three years.

“It’s a very large project so we don’t want that to slip in any way and we will continue to drive forward just as we have been,” said Mann.

Construction is expected to begin in 2019 with service starting in late 2025 or 2026.

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.

Expanded Transit Service Announced for Orange-Durham

There’s a new weekday express service available to commuters to-and-from Orange County.

The Orange-Durham Express, or ODX, is being offered for free through Friday, Sept 19.

Beginning Monday, Sept. 22, the one-way fare will cost $3.

The ODX serves Hillsborough, Duke Hospital, the Durham VA Medical Center, and the Downtown Durham Station, with three pickups and drop-offs in the morning and afternoon.

The ODX park-and-ride lot is at the North Hills Shopping Center, located at Highway 70 and North Churton Street in Hillsborough.

Triangle Transit will also begin offering seven-day service on four bus routes that include service to RDU International Airport; New Hope Commons; the Regional Transit Center on Slater Road in Durham; or the Streets of Southpoint.

For more details, you can visit here.

Expanded bus service in Durham and Orange Counties is paid for, in part, by the half-cent transit tax approved by voters in 2012.

Triangle Transit Completes 4G Wi-Fi Upgrade

Triangle Transit customers may now surf the Web a little faster while killing time during a bus ride.

An upgrade from 3G to 4G Wi-Fi was completed on all 68 buses in the TTA system this month.

According to a TTA news release from Monday: “The better service represents part of a continuing campaign to bring technological advances to current customers, potential riders and public transit. “

Triangle Transit began offering free Wi-Fi to customers in 2011.

CH Town Council ‘Wonk’ Praises Federal Light Rail Approval

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.

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.

Triangle Transit Uses New Bus On Shoulder Program

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.

Triangle Transit Leader Defends Light Rail Plan

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.

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.