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Tuesday March 21st

Transit alternatives fill gap left by abandoned light rail project

What is the future of transit in Chapel Hill now that the light rail is gone?

UNC-Chapel Hill Students await the RU, a bus route of Chapel Hill Transit. The Board of Aldermen seeks to improve public transportation by working with Chapel Hill Transit to more effectively manage the current level of public transportation services in Carrboro , and extend service into areas of Carrboro not served by a fixed route service. Damon Seils, Board of Aldermen's liaison to the Transportation Advisory Board, discussed how transportation may be used to fight climate change and give more people the opportunity to use public transportation.
Buy Photos UNC-Chapel Hill Students await the RU, a bus route of Chapel Hill Transit. Orange County and Chapel Hill will be focusing on Bus Rapid Transit, pedestrian access, bike paths and more to compensate for the lack of light rail.

Hop on to the North-South Bus Rapid Transit line from Eubanks Road to Southern Village, take the Wake-Durham commuter rail, try GoTriangle Electric Buses or bike from your apartment to campus. These could be a few of your transportation options in Chapel Hill.  

The transit options didn’t look so bright six months ago when the Durham-Orange light rail project was discontinued.

“Without it, we’re now faced with fulfilling that very large gap,” said Mark Marcoplos, an Orange County commissioner. 

Marcoplos said the county has redirected some of the light rail resources to the N-S Bus Rapid Transit project: a planned 8.2-mile line from Eubanks Road to the Southern Village.

“Light rail is the superior method of mass transit,” he said. “And when we couldn’t make that happen, and that money becomes available, we wanted to keep moving forward with mass transit, and BRT is the next best project in our county.”

N-S BRT: "first step in creating a better transit"

Matt Cecil, transit development manager for Chapel Hill Transit, said the route is estimated to open in late 2024 or early 2025. He said the design stage of the project is about 18 to 20 percent complete, and the next step is an environmental review, which should be finished by next summer.

“Currently we’re receiving all of our funding to the tune of $14.1 million through the OC Transit Plan,” he said. “Those funds were established on a half-cent sales tax.”

The project also anticipates $100 million from the Small Starts program and $40 million from local or non-federal sources, he said. 

These resources will hopefully give the BRT project a unique design.

“Once it makes a right back onto South Columbia, it is currently slated to be a dedicated converted bus lane,” Cecil said. “So, we’re actually going to convert an existing traffic line to a bus lane, and it will carry that converted lane all the way to downtown.”

The buses on this route would no longer be a part of regular car traffic, hopefully reducing potential "community frustration," Cecil said. 

According to the N-S BRT Fact Sheet, the project also uses a traffic signal priority system, which enables longer green lights for approaching BRT vehicles.

“N-S BRT is very much a first step in creating a better transit system in Chapel Hill,” he said. “Making a better transportation system will make it more attractive for future development and help recruit more people to come and take residence.”

"Make room for everybody"

Jason Merrill, chairperson of the Town’s Transportation and Connectivity Advisory Board, said the Town wants to create a network that gives people a variety of choices besides cars when planning future transportation. Merrill said the BRT project will be a step toward a complete transit model that will have features like improved bike and pedestrian access and greenways.

“The hope and the expectation are that if we create more opportunities for people to pick other methods, then hopefully we’ll have fewer cars on the street,” he said. “And that will reduce congestion for car drivers.”

He added that when looking at transit planning, congestion isn't the only metric that should be considered. 

“There isn’t just one way for everyone to do everything,” he said. “So the responsibility of the government is to create public spaces, our streets, that make room for everybody, and then make it safe for people to choose.”

Ongoing discussions

PLAN 590: Roadways for a Safer Future, a special topics course of UNC’s City and Regional Planning Department, offers a chance for students to look at roadway infrastructure through local transit.

It aims to foster discussion and understanding across disciplines about critical transportation components such as land use, and this semester’s material includes the BRT project. 

Tabitha Combs, the course instructor, said younger generations like college students are leading a new transportation trend with less driving and more walking, biking and transit.

“The younger perspective says, ‘No, that’s not what we want, don’t force what worked for previous generations on us because we’re shifting this paradigm,'" she said.

Combs said this discussion is important for understanding local transportation needs.

“It’s not just that you deserve a voice, but you have a demand placed on the system of the community,” she said. “It’s important that we understand what you are doing and what can we do to make this better for you, so just understanding the need and thought processes of this very big demographic is really important from an overall town planning perspective.”


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