Light rail project moves forward

Plans to build a light rail connecting Durham and Orange Counties will continue as scheduled, whether Wake County wants to participate or not.

The proposed 17.3- mile light rail would connect UNC Hospitals to East Durham via N.C. Highway 54.

Earlier this year, Wake County hired outside help to evaluate good transit options for the county after its commissioners crafted another light rail plan that would connect the cities of Raleigh, Cary and Wake Forest.

Since working with the transit experts, who opposed any light rail options for Wake County, it seems the commissioners have stopped any light rail discussion that might have connected the three counties.

But David Bonk, the long range and transportation planning manager for Chapel Hill, said Wake County’s decision will have no effect on the light rail project for Orange and Durham Counties.

“The project is moving forward because it can stand alone without the Wake County program,” said Bonk. “The money for the light rail isn’t affected in any way, shape or form by what Wake does.”

Bonk said the two projects are related but aren’t dependent on each other. The light rail connecting Durham and Orange Counties would be separate from another light rail that would serve Wake County.

Barry Jacobs, the chairman of the Board of Orange County Commissioners, said both counties want to move forward — and it’s up to Wake County to decide if they will also progress with a light rail plan.

“I know they’re trying to do the best they can, but it would be best if they’d make a decision because we need to get started one way or another,” Jacobs said. “Hopefully with them, but we could start without them.”

The proposed Durham-Orange light rail is part of a project that will fund a light rail, a commuter rail stationed in Hillsborough and improvements to the current bus system, according to public meetings hosted by Triangle Transit in November.

Jacobs said Durham and Orange counties can get the ball rolling and the light rail system will grow over time.

Some residents in rural areas are upset that tax dollars will be going toward something that won’t affect the entire county, but Jacobs said the light rail will be a county-wide benefit.

“If you can enhance public transportation for people who are going to and from employment centers in Orange County, that’s a benefit for us economically and environmentally,” Jacobs said.

The next step toward a light rail is the environmental assessment, which is part of the process of applying for federal funding. Jacobs said the counties should be sending in their application in the next six to nine months.

Applying for federal funding will cost Triangle Transit $30 million.

As for an expected date for the light rail’s opening, Bonk said they hope there will be a system up and operating in 13 years.

Jacobs said he is hopeful within 10 years they will either have something on the ground that looks like a light rail or an up and running light rail.

However, he said he is a little hesitant to make any end date predictions.

“I once joked that we would have light rail before Duke went to a bowl game, but I was wrong about that too,” he said.

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