What’s the deal with light rail?

You might have noticed some headlines about the recent federal approval of the Orange/Durham light rail corridor. Notably absent in the discussion has been Wake County – our neighbors to the east are a bit cool on the idea.

There’s good reason for their skepticism; this isn’t the first time people have talked about bringing light rail to the area. There are numerous hurdles to overcome, but mostly it boils down to a simple, irrefutable fact: the region doesn’t have the potential ridership to financially support light rail without massive subsidies by non-riders. Given the sprawl-y nature of the Raleigh / Durham / Chapel Hill metro area, light rail is going to be of limited utility and limited use – at least at first.

One of the goals of the TTA is to at least link up NCCU, Duke, and UNC. This is a logical start, certainly. Check this map (PDF) or watch the fly-through:

But unless you’re going between those few locations, it seems unlikely that rail transit alone will serve your needs. There’s not much residential density along that corridor, and for rail to be a viable option for commuters people will need ways to get to the train stations, which adds time and complexity (possibly a lot of it, if you’re stuck using buses).

So, you have all these caveats, but it seems like this might be the time that things start to actually move forward.

Or will it?

There’s the big, unanswered question of money. Although Durham and Orange counties have voted for a half cent sales tax hike to contribute to the project, footing the massive $1.3B estimated bill will require both federal and state funding as well, neither of which has been approved (and, given the situation in NC, state-level funding for this kind of infrastructure seems exceedingly unlikely).

In a world where the funding does materialize… what next? Well, you’ve got five years of planning, which in turn is followed by five years of construction. Completion would, optimistically, be pegged at a decade away.

So, what’s the bottom line? I think it’s the right time to have the conversation, because it seems like greater density is in our future, and it’s good that people are considering options, but… don’t get your hopes up. This project isn’t going to happen overnight, and right now it lacks the capital (political and actual) to even get off the ground.

One final note: light rail works best if you have good pedestrian and bike infrastructure to support it, so people can get to/from stations on their own without vehicles. If we’re planning for a future with light rail, one thing we can do right now is to work on improving the environment for cyclists and pedestrians.

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