The Durham-Orange County Light Rail Line Is on the Ropes Again. That Might Be a Good Thing. | News Feature | Indy Week
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The Durham-Orange County Light Rail Line Is on the Ropes Again. That Might Be a Good Thing. 

Anne Wells would seem to be the target demographic for the proposed Durham to Orange Light Rail Transit project. Thirty years old, she moved to the Triangle from Chicago last year to work as an audiovisual archivist at the UNC-Chapel Hill Library. She picked Durham over Chapel Hill or Carrboro because it was more affordable, more of a city. Every weekday, she drives thirty minutes from the house she rents in Northgate Park to the UNC campus.

"I would love to take light rail to work," she says. After a decade in Chicago, she's accustomed to getting around via public transportation. And much about her daily commute—traffic on 15-501, gas expenses, the $40-a-month cut the university takes out of her paycheck for parking—is a bummer.

To get to work under the envisioned D-O LRT plan, however, Wells would have to take a thirty-minute ride on the Roxboro Street bus to the Dillard Street station. She'd then wait for the light-rail train to arrive, take it approximately forty minutes to Chapel Hill, then walk five minutes to the Wilson Library.

Her commute time would nearly triple, from a half hour behind the wheel to an hour and fifteen minutes on public transportation—assuming her arrivals at the bus stop and the train station are well timed. And so she says she's unlikely to wake up at 5 a.m. just so she can take the train to work. Neither would most people.

The trip into Chapel Hill will be considerably breezier, though, for a future resident of One City Center, the giant hole in the ground in the center of downtown Durham, soon to be a twenty-seven-story mixed-use condo building. For that privileged urban denizen, it's just a two-block walk to Durham Station. Likewise, Duke students will have their pick of three on-campus stops to get them to and from a Bulls game or a show at Cat's Cradle. The Ninth Street stop on the D-O LRT is exploding with nearby apartment options—if you can spend $1,500 a month for a one-bedroom. And for homeowners down by the proposed Woodmont Station near Downing Creek, where the median household income is $76,000, a car-free trip to DPAC is just steps away.

The light-rail line briefly dips its toes into lower-income east Durham, terminating at Alston and Pettigrew, but as William Ingram, president of Durham Tech, argued in public comments last year, the light-rail plan "fails to adequately serve the nearly twenty thousand individuals who enroll in at least one class at Durham Tech annually, nor our over eight hundred full-time and part-time employees." UNC and Duke, whose students are less likely to rely on public transportation, have no such complaints.

Virtually every elected official in Durham and Orange County is in favor of the seventeen-mile, $1.6 billion (at least) line. So, too, it seems, are most ordinary citizens, especially those under the age of forty. There is near-universal gut-level enthusiasm for the concept of light rail in the Triangle.

But that doesn't mean there aren't legitimate questions about the wisdom of the current plan: Does it serve the people who need it? Will emerging technologies render it obsolete by the time it is completed, ten years from whenever the funding finally comes through? Would an enhanced busing system—something like bus rapid transit—be a more effective, flexible, and cheaper option? And how will local governments come up with the cash to pay for construction overages and shortfalls caused by potentially low ridership?

There's also a very real chance that Republicans in the state legislature might succeed in spiking the rail altogether. On the one hand, this would be more of the same: shortsighted conservatives stalling progress in the very cities that are responsible for North Carolina's economic vibrancy. But there's another possibility here, sort of a stopped-clock-is-right-twice-a-day scenario: What if, this time, those Republicans who oppose light rail for all the wrong reasons—allergy to government spending, resentment of progressive city folk—happen to be right?

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