Different Views Remain on Light Rail Project

Construction on the Durham-Orange Light Rail won’t start until 2019, and service isn’t expected to begin until 2025, but it’s already a contentious issue.

Transit officials and community members discussed the development of the project at Tuesday’s WCHL Community Forum.

The 17-mile light rail line will run from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to the 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.

Last year the legislature put a cap of $500,000 on light-rail, which effectively halted the project.

Patrick McDonough, manager of planning for GoTriangle, said they were working to get the cap removed. McDonough said he believes a House Committee will recommend removing the cap to the rest of the General Assembly soon.

“We are confident that there is a chance to address the cap to get it removed,” said McDonough.

Alex Cabanes, a community activist, is against the light rail and is instead advocating for a new bus system.

“Light rail might not be the best solution for our particular environment and things like BRT, or bus rapid transit, would potentially be more compelling for the area,” said Cabanes.

Bus Rapid Transit involves building dedicated lanes, so buses can travel unobstructed by traffic.

Chapel Hill council Member Ed Harrison, said the light rail trains would simply have more capacity than buses.

“Any bus we know in the world can safety carry no more than 100 people. A rail vehicle, that by the way last two and half times as long as a bus very likely, I believe it’s up to 500 people,” said Harrison.

Chapel Hill is considering a Bus Rapid Transit system in the North South Corridor, along Martin Luther King Boulevard, but not as a substitute for the light rail system.

Harrison said the Bus Rapid Transit system would still be a major reconstruction project for the town.

Patrick McDonough said the light rail would be integrated with the local bus and sidewalk systems, to allow people to travel easily around the area.

“We’ve set aside money in the Durham County bus and rail investment plan and the Orange County plans to try to deliver those bus and sidewalk projects as effectively as we can,” said McDonough.


As Chapel Hill Grows— Affordable Housing Disappears

CHAPEL HILL – Chapel Hill is growing at a fast-rate and the need for sustainable development is vital for the future of the Town. But as we grow, affordable housing is vanishing.
In 1990, the population was 94,000. As of last year, it had grown to 138,000.
Fred Black is a Chapel Hill resident who served in the military for 26 years and is very active in the community.
“One of the things that strikes me is that when we talk about growth, in a major way we are talking about coping with change. And change of course can be very difficult to deal with, particularly on elected bodies but even with citizens can sometimes have a hard time getting their hands around change,” Black said.
Black moderated a panel at WCHL’s community Forum that focused on growth and how it should affect the Town’s planning process.
George Cianciolo is a Duke University associate professor of pathology and former chair of the Chapel Hill Planning Board. He’s now the co-chair Chapel Hill 2020. Cianciolo said builders participate in the high end market—as opposed to affordable housing—because the cost of getting into the market is already so high. He says it isn’t worth their risk of investing in affordable housing when they know they’ll get the returns from high-end housing.
“I think what we did wrong was we did not keep our eye on the ball in terms of the balance between commercial growth and residential growth. And we’ve had excellent residential growth and planning for it,” Cianciolo said. “But I think in doing so, we lost the fact that with out that commercial tax-base, we’re putting a lot more pressure on the residential tax payers.”
Delores Bailey of Empowerment INC says the growth has negatively affected affordable housing.
“Even as we grapple today with Northside and Pine Knolls and look at this over and over again— we are pushing out those people as we grow. It looks great as we bring in different types of people, there a certain other type of people who are not being addressed,” said Bailey.
“We have, despite our best intentions, experienced a little bit of sprawl. I don’t think that type of residential development is ultimately going to be sustainable,” said Carrboro Board of Alderman Member Damon Seils.
Orange County commissioner Renee Price added that when you venture into the rural areas surrounding Chapel Hill, residential sub-divisions have popped-up. She says this is causing the loss of farmlands.
“We’re changing the landscape of Orange County and what it looks like—who is here and who is not here,” Price said.
Dwight Basset, Chapel Hill economic development officer, explained that home values are unusually high in the region and are about 8 percent higher specifically in Chapel Hill. This is also accompanied by a high property tax.
“We need to go back and understand how we arrived at that destination that we decided not to let the market dictate what is appropriate for the area. We should go back to the basic premises that the market will guide and direct itself,” Basset explained.
The panel also tackled public transportation. They agreed that it goes hand-in-hand with growth.
Brian Litchfield, Chapel Hill Transit’s interim director, said the CHT has $18.5 dollar budget. The Town of Chapel Hill gives them $4 million; Carrboro gives about $1.1 million; UNC gives $7 million; and then the rest is from state and federal resources and tax dollars.
When UNC is in session during the regular school year, Litchfield says they do about 30,000 rides a day. He says it would cause problems if all those people were commuting by car.
Litchfield said CHT is the second largest transit system in the state—being only the 16 largest city. In 2001, it did two million rides a year and currently is giving seven million rides.
He said moving forward, housing and public transit should work to complement the other.
“We get a great deal of service at a fairly low-cost. But the question we have is: Can we sustain that? And how or can we continue to expand that to meet the needs we are talking about?” Litchfield said.
Cianciolo championed the idea of public transportation and paying tax dollars to support it. He believes it protects our air quality and helps to lessen congestion.