Riding the bus to and from work is a reality for most Chapel Hill residents. But as Orange County continues to grow, serious constraints are put on transportation infrastructure.
This is the premise motivating the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project.
Triangle Transit is working with all transit area planners, city and county staffs and other planning organizations to create a 17.1-mile light-rail line in the year 2025-26.
Patrick McDonough, the manager of planning and transit-oriented development for Triangle Transit, said Durham-Chapel Hill is now one of the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. — ranking at No. 100 for the first time.
“When people talk about population growth in the Triangle, they normally focus on Raleigh and Cary, which is the faster half of the Triangle in growth,” McDonough said.
The light rail would extend from the Jackson Parking Deck by UNC Hospitals to East Alston Avenue in east Durham. The line’s route between these two points has been adjusted multiple times due to environmental impact concerns and other issues raised by town councils and residents.
“Part of the project was looking how to expand travel capacities in areas where highway wideness doesn’t necessarily work out so well,” McDonough said.
Meghan Makoid, environmental planner for Triangle Transit, said that under the National Environmental Policy Act, transportation can’t have an adverse effect of any type of parkland.
“If a use is declared because of the types of impacts (on parkland), then they would make you go with another alternative (to the parkland),” Makoid said.
The project’s electric-powered light-rail vehicles can travel up to 55 mph, which has made some residents worry about at-grade crossings, the intersections between roads and light-rail lines.
Katharine Eggleston, transportation engineer for Triangle Transit, said at-grade crossings are very typical.
“Light rail has the electric wires overhead, high enough where people can safely walk underneath and drive
underneath,” Eggleston said. “We have models in Charlotte that operate very safely.”
The Lynx Blue Line is Charlotte’s first light-rail service. It spans 9.6 miles and started its service in November 2007. The light rail is currently under construction for an extension that would reach UNC-Charlotte from the city center.
Alyssa Bensky, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior from Charlotte, said that she thinks Charlotte’s light rail is wonderful.
“Now that they are expanding it from downtown out to UNC-C, those students will have cheap, efficient and environmentally friendly transportation into downtown,” Bensky said. “I think in the long run, I believe that it will help get more people into downtown.”
McDonough said the Orange County project is now in its project development stage, which means the Federal Transit Administration is taking it seriously. The next step would be for the agency to greenlight the engineering phase.
“Transit thrives on places where it’s hard to cram in more cars because you want to get people into places that have high interchange for jobs and education,” he said. “This infrastructure isn’t about planning for today; it’s about planning for tomorrow.”
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