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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: The Durham-Orange Light Rail is dead. Long live Bus Rapid Transit.

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A Chapel Hill Transit bus drove down South Road on Thursday, Sep. 7, 2023.

For all my train fans, NYC subway girls or anyone who's ever taken the Amtrak from Durham to Charlotte, I have some good and bad news. The bad news is there is no chance of the Triangle getting a commuter rail at any point in the foreseeable future. GoTriangle’s feasibility study found it would cost $3.3 billion and that the region's local governments would need to fund the entire thing. 

No state or federal funding means it's dead and buried. Send flowers to me and the GoTriangle office. While the federal government won’t fund any more commuter rail projects in the Triangle, they are funding Bus Rapid Transit.

Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, is a bus system on steroids. It’s not as shiny of a public transit toy as a light rail line, but might be far more useful to the Triangle. 

BRT is fairly loosely defined but has a few key features: It's a bus route with special enhancements allowing for faster, more frequent and more reliable service, such as: 

1. Dedicated bus lanes: For all or most of a route, buses travel in their own dedicated lanes, meaning they don’t have to deal with congestion from traffic. 

2. Traffic and intersection treatments: Traffic signaling along the route gives buses priority.

3. Off-board fare: Chapel Hill Transit is fare free so this doesn't apply here, but most routes have payment systems at the stop so people can simply get on and off. 

4. On-grade boarding: Instead of having to step up onto the bus, the platform and bus will be at the same elevation. This reduces boarding time and makes things far more accessible! 

Chapel Hill and Raleigh are both working on BRT projects, and Durham's 2023 Transit plan includes a recommendation for a study on what routes would be best for BRT. 

Chapel Hill’s North-South BRT (NSBRT) project is an 8.2-mile route running from Eubanks Road to Southern Village, along the current NS route, which will eventually be replaced by NSBRT. The plan will include new stations along the route, upgrade bike and pedestrian facilities and separate bus lanes along the entire corridor outside of the UNC campus, Franklin Street and Eubanks Road. 

This project is exciting for a few different reasons. First, the corridor the route runs on is one of the fastest growing parts of the town, an area with thousands of students living along it. This will make it easier for students to get from housing on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to campus and Franklin Street. Additionally, the BRT will cut congestion, giving people options for getting back from bars and games without needing a designated driver. 

The planned bike and pedestrian enhancements will also make biking and walking along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard far safer. The current road design between Rosemary Street and Estes Drive only has narrow sidewalks for pedestrians and forces bikers to share four lanes of traffic with drivers.

The new design includes six-foot bike lanes, five-foot sidewalks and dedicated bus lanes acting as a buffer between car traffic and other road users. 

Additionally, the town plans to heavily invest in development along the corridor. With Carrboro on one side and wealthy residential neighborhoods on the other, the main part of Franklin currently has limited room to grow. But imagine extending Franklin Street north along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. More restaurants, bars, bookstores; more of what we love. As the town and university grow, downtown will too. 

BRT is frankly the future of public transit in the Triangle. It’s far cheaper — the entire NSBRT project costs less than what GoTriangle spent on planning the light rail project that never actually got built. It also makes more sense given the low density of the metro area: research suggests that light rail needs a population density of at least 30 people per acre near stations to be cost effective. The Triangle's population density is 181.75 people per kilometer or just .73 per acre. 

Those figures are far higher within the urbanized areas of the region but even still, the Durham-Orange Light Rail was mainly intended to serve commuters between Durham and Chapel Hill. The current Chapel-Hill-Durham Bus routes are GoTriangle's 400 and 405, and they run along Franklin/15-501 for most of the route. That route could be turned into a BRT corridor.

To me, the most important thing is this: how can we get the most number of people choosing to take transit, walk or bike rather than drive? It feels to me that building on the already existing bus system via BRT is the right step. I’m excited to see it become a reality in Chapel Hill. The Light Rail is dead, long live the Bus. 

@samadran

@dthopinion | opinion@dailytarheel.com

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