The Durham-Orange light rail project has been presented as “Our Transit Future,” but some local leaders aren’t getting on board.
The proposed light rail would run for 17.7 miles between UNC Hospitals and Durham. It would have stops in Chapel Hill, Durham, and Orange County, connecting the three areas. Current estimates show the system opening to the public in 2028.
However, cost projections have risen lately, including an additional $90 million to elevate the track around Duke University. This has made some local officials uneasy.
Nancy Oates, a member of the Chapel Hill Town Council, said the light rail is out of reach with its current estimated expenses.
“We can’t afford it at this point,” she said. “I would be much more enthusiastic about it if the price tag were lower.”
She also explained that some aspects of the system are turning out to be less appealing than they seemed during the initial proposal.
“It seems like one of the selling points was that somehow we’d be able to get developers to contribute affordable housing,” she said. “There would be affordable housing near the station areas and the light rail would benefit people of modest means, and it seems like now that’s not really the case, and I wish we had known that up front.”
Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee criticized the project for moving too quickly.
“I would have preferred that we addressed local transportation needs first, and then some time in the 2040 time frame be planning for a light rail system,” he said. “What I would prefer to see is a pullback and a refocus of the asset sales tax money to build out a comprehensive local system starting in Chapel Hill-Carrboro with the bus systems.”
McKee argued many residents of Orange County would be unable to reach light rail stops without an improved bus system.
“That is my greatest fear – that the people who need this service the most are being short changed,” McKee said. “That is not public transportation, and we have many citizens in our county that are very transit-dependent and we cannot ask them to be inconvenienced even more than they are now.”
Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger recognizes the concerns of officials like McKee, but she is still optimistic about the project.
“I can understand that sentiment,” she said. “I will say that Orange County is getting a rail station with Amtrak in Hillsborough. There are going to be some economic benefits from the station areas and moving people.”
Oates also sees the potential for economic growth but is not convinced the light rail is necessary to make that growth happen.
“I think that the areas that they’re talking about for development will be developed anyway, regardless of the light rail, so we’ll still have some tax revenue,” she said. “It’s possible that the light rail will focus that and move it along maybe faster than it otherwise might.”
Skeptical leaders like Oates and McKee will get a chance to review the project more thoroughly once the design process is finished. Hemminger said she expects that to happen in the near future.
“We’re still working through details, and that’s what’s really hard for people,” she said. “They’re talking about being design complete by this time next year.”
Hemminger is excited about the possibilities presented by the light rail but stressed the importance of considering all of the factors involved.
“I think there’s some great opportunity,” she said. “When we get it right, it can be a real benefit. But we’ve got to work to make sure it’s the right fit.”
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