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The light rail debacle chugs over to UNC

Light Rail meeting
Jay Heikes, Transit-Oriented Development planner at GoTriangle, explains the concept of TOD during a meeting held on Wednesday by Carolina Urbanists, a student organization that aims to help students learn about city and regional planning and to raise awareness of urban issues.

GoTriangle speakers presented local transit plans and the Orange-Durham light rail project on Wednesday to UNC students at a meeting held by Carolina Urbanists.

Carolina Urbanists is a student organization that aims to help students learn about sustainable city and regional planning and to raise awareness about urban issues.

John Thompson, co-president of Carolina Urbanists, said he chose this topic because it is hotly debated.  

"It’s a very relevant topic. It definitely will have an impact on UNC students in the future,” he said. 

Andrew Willard, public involvement specialist at GoTriangle, said voters in Durham and Orange counties approved a half-cent sales tax in 2011 and 2012 to invest in transit service in the counties.

“So that is really important because we have a permanent funding source,” he said. “Not every transit provider has that. And it also represents the community saying, ‘We value transit.’”

The transit plans for Durham and Orange counties include better bus service, improved stops and shelters for people waiting for buses, the light rail project and the commuter rail project. 

He also said the commuter rail and light rail systems will serve as the spines for the regional transit system, and buses will serve the outer parts of the counties. 

“(The light rail) is going to be a 45-minute trip, end to end, from (North Carolina Central University) to UNC, regardless of traffic,” he said.

With a maximum speed of 55 mph, trains will have two cars, each holding 150 to 170 passengers.

Willard stressed that the light rail project is in the “final design and engineering” stage. He said construction in Chapel Hill will begin first, followed by Durham, and full light rail service is expected to begin in 2028. 

Jay Heikes, transit-oriented development planner at GoTriangle, introduced students to the concept of TOD, which refers to compact, walkable places like offices and homes arranged around the transit stops.

GoTriangle hopes to submit an application for a federal Full Funding Grant Agreement in spring 2019. To remain eligible for state funding, it needs to secure all non-federal funds by April 30 and all federal funds by Nov. 30.

It released a statement on Feb. 27 recognizing Duke University’s decision not to sign the cooperative agreement for the light rail project as “disappointing” and “a major setback for the Durham and Orange county communities and the entire Triangle region.”

Students asked the GoTriangle presenters about Duke's decision, but they were told to talk to communications directly. The Daily Tar Heel reached out to GoTriangle's communications department but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

The statement also addressed North Carolina Railroad Company’s letter saying that it cannot approve GoTriangle’s current conceptual plans.

“What we suggest is that GoTriangle continue the design work while designated representatives of GoTriangle and NCRR finalize the lease language subject to approved final plans, and that this form of unexecuted lease draft be presented to the (Federal Transit Administration) in good faith as part of your federal funding applications,” the letter said. 

Carolina Urbanists said the discussion around regional transit projects is reflective of a larger conversation.

“This is one piece of the puzzle in all of America for trying to expand a way for people to get to work and get around, without having a car, and make that a normal thing,” said co-president Kerina Patel. 


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