North Carolina Lawmakers Try to Sabotage Durham-Orange Light Rail

A rendering of the 17-mile Durham-Orange light rail plan. Image: Go Triangle
A rendering of the proposed Durham-Orange light rail. Image: Our Transit Future

State lawmakers in North Carolina launched a sneak attack this week on plans for light rail between Durham and Orange County — and nobody’s sure exactly who’s behind it or why they did it.

Leaders in Durham and Orange are counting on the state to deliver about 10 percent of the funding for the $1.5 billion, 17-mile line, which would connect the booming area between Durham and Chapel Hill. But North Carolina residents learned this week that the state budget compromise between the House and Senate includes a new provision that would outlaw directing more than $500,000 in state funds to a light rail project. Lawmakers never openly debated the provision.

Durham-Orange light rail is expected to draw 23,000 daily riders. Image: GoTriangle
Daily ridership on the Durham-Orange light rail is expected to be 23,000. Click to enlarge. Image: Our Transit Future

The move was sudden and unexpected. “Nobody knew about it, and bang – it was there,” said Ron Tober, a retired transit executive who lives in the state. “It’s a fairly dramatic event that has occurred.”

Voters in Durham and Orange counties have approved a half-cent sales tax to fund the light-rail project. The plan also called for $138 million from the state, with federal funding to close the gap.

Just this week, the Federal Transit Administration awarded $1.7 million to GoTriangle to plan transit-oriented development around the stations. Project leaders recently completed a draft environmental impact statement and were preparing to approach the federal government for funds to begin the engineering phase.

In Orange and Durham counties, Tober says, there’s no real organized opposition to the project, outside of some run-of-the-mill concerns about where the route will go. Daily ridership on the line is expected to be 23,000.

“This is clearly a political, ideological effort on the part of somebody to undermine a worthy investment in public transportation,” said Tober. “The Raleigh-Durham region is one of the fastest growing in the United States.

The attack came so suddenly and late in the budgeting process that supporters of the project haven’t even had time to respond, he said.

The frustrating thing is that Governor Pat McCrory, with the help of the legislature, established a “non-political” merit-based funding system for transportation projects. And in that process, the Durham-Orange Rail line succeeded against competing highway projects, Tober said.

McCrory isn’t expected to veto the budget over this provision, but Tober thinks Raleigh’s light rail plans can survive the attack. It’s possible the budget could be amended after the fact. Or a subsequent budget could reverse the rule.

But even if it’s a temporary obstacle, the new rule definitely creates a problem for project leaders, he said.

“As soon as you start delaying a project of this magnitude,” he said, “the cost will go up.”

Another transit project in North Carolina, Charlotte’s 9-mile light rail extension, appears to be safe. There’s already a signed full funding grant agreement from the state awarding that project $260 million. The existing segment of that light rail system is considered an enormous success, carrying more than 16,000 riders a day.

UPDATE: According to a poll of the Triangle Business Journal, 80 percent of readers oppose the state legislature’s interference with the project.

Also, local journalist Tim Boyum reports Governor Pat McCrory has condemned the measure, saying “I think it’s a huge mistake.”

14 thoughts on North Carolina Lawmakers Try to Sabotage Durham-Orange Light Rail

  1. “In Orange and Durham counties, Tober says, there’s no real
    organized opposition to the project…”

    Well, if Mr. Tober says so, it must be true! Except for the fact that there is plenty of opposition – informed, consistent, and just as in this report, ignored.

    Of course a collection of concerned citizens is less “real organized” than the combined institutional might of GoTriangle, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, and the various local governments that are all trying to push this project ahead without dissent. Is “real organized” the new measure of virtue?

    Why does this article go out of its way to sneak Mr. Tober into port as “a retired transit executive” (how benign! How unbiased!) when he is, in fact, the retired head of Charlotte’s transit system and a noted partisan of light rail?

    One last thing: Voters did not approve a sales tax to fund “light rail.” We approved a sales tax to fund “transit.” Powers that be decided the transit had to had to had to take the form of light rail. Cheaper, more useful alternatives, like Bus Rapid Transit, would not make as large or as lasting a monument to their time in office.

  2. Let’s look at the Charlotte Lynx (began service Nov 27, 2007) where daily ridership has stagnated @ 16,000 daily boardings over the last 7 years while the population grew 17% (and fuel prices had no apparent impact on ridership). The Charlotte ridership numbers were reconfirmed in a recent Charlotte Observer article with Danny Rogers of Charlotte Lynx (August
    28, 2015).

    So despite all of these massive LRT investments, and the fact that Charlotte has a substantially larger population than our area (or the 57 square mile corridor) … Charlotte has only gotten up to 16,000 daily boardings over the past 8 years (and GoTriangle is projecting 23,000?).

    So if everyone is not jumping on the train, how are they getting to work? Well, no surprise really. NPR reported on 8/31/2015 that the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard rated “Charlotte First In Worst Traffic In North Carolina.”

    And Charlotte is now experiencing city / county budget shortfalls that is requiring some very tough budget decisions and tradeoffs, including budget cuts & increased taxes. A fate that I fear that would befall us here, especially if the DOLRT costs rise to $2 Billion, should the costs rise to a comparable level of $126 Million per mile experienced by the Charlotte BLE.

  3. “Nobody’s sure exactly who’s behind it or why they did it…Lawmakers never openly debated the provision.”

    Sounds like a retroactive pension increase for public employees cashing in and moving out (not NC?) in the New York State legislature, followed by cuts in pay and benefits for new hires. Almost glad to see I don’t live in the only place where younger generations are getting screwed in secret.

  4. It is flagrant misinformation on Jim Doughty’s part to claim that voters “did not approve a sales tax to fund ‘light rail'”.

    First of all, the sales tax passed by an wide margins in both Orange County (59-41) and Durham County (60-40). Of course the ballot question itself didn’t enumerate every single project to be funded. That would have made for a pretty long ballot! Bond and sales tax measures are passed at the local level all the time in the same manner.

    The point is that a prerequisite to the sales tax referendum being placed on the ballot was a bus and rail investment plan — get that? bus and *rail* — for each county that was crafted and vetted in public meetings, and discussed in the media, for *years* leading up to the vote, and the LRT project was clearly included the whole time. You had to be living under a rock not to know that was part of it.

    There are lies, damned lies, and…obfuscations. And Jim Doughty is guilty of the latter — at the very least.

  5. BRT is generally just used an a way for transit haters to make it look like they don’t hate all transit projects. “Well, sure, we’re actually *FOR* transit, but just not rail…”

    If a project is downgraded from rail to BRT, suddenly they don’t want that either.

  6. The actual ballot box referendum in Durham read:

    County Public Transportation Sales and Use Tax

    One-half percent (1/2%) local sales and use taxes, in addition to the current local sales and use taxes, to be used only for public transportation systems.

    In Durham County in 2011
    16,764 FOR
    11,104 AGAINST
    131,723 ABSENT

    NC GA passed law that made this off cycle election tactic illegal.
    §163-287. Special elections; procedure for calling.

  7. The DOLRT projects 23,000 boardings (in 2040) during 18.5 hours of daily operation across the 17 mile circuit (at a cost of $1.6 BILLION or $94 million per mile), by building a steel rail highway with exclusive 50’ right of way or 622 passengers per hour (each track) X 2 or 1243 passengers in 50’ right-of-way

    Typical highways can accommodate 2,200 vehicles
    per lane per hour X 4 (human driven), utilizing 5%
    of roadway capacity or 8800 vehicles in 48’ right-of-way.

    So BRT gives us a more cost effective and flexible alternative compared to LRT. GoTriangle has already spent an estimated $50 Million to date, which ironically, could have provided the equivalent of two BRT lines like Chapel Hill planned $25 million BRT / MLK corridor.

  8. This sort of shenanigans has been going on for this entire session of the NC legislature, ever since the crime gang called the “Republicans” got a majority. They’ve been putting in one poison pill after another and nobody will claim responsibilty for them.

  9. Oh, it’s far worse in the South. In every single state in the southeast. Believe it or not, NY looks like a center of good government by comparison.

  10. Your numbers are just plain wrong. As usual for people attacking rail projects. I’m not going to bother to print the correct numbers; people can look them up; but you have the wrong width for the right-of-ways and the wrong capacities per hour. For starters.

  11. StreetsBlog infers that their blogs are news, but in
    fact this blog is unabashedly biased and one-sided about this subject. Its
    choice of words is inflammatory rather than objective. The legislative action was hardly a “sneak
    attack.” It was the result of considered action by a majority of the assembly,
    who considered the enormous cost of Durham-Orange county light rail greatly exceeds any benefit. Proponents have grossly exaggerated
    ridership, and even if they were accurate the construction costs alone amount to $4,000
    per resident assuming an optimistic 400,000 residents in the area near the
    light rail line. At 20,000 riders per
    day, it would still take 20 years to get the construction costs down to $11 per
    passenger (365 days X 20 years X 20,000 divided into $1.6 billion). And these costs
    don’t begin to cover daily operating costs.
    Yes, voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase, but it was for the
    state to provide $138 million, not the current $400 million. And the voters did not know the total cost at
    the time. State and federal funds are
    not free; they cost everyone . True
    there has been only scattered organized local opposition, but remember than
    Durham and Chapel Hill voters are predominately blue, and many favor the rail
    system totally regardless of any costs – purely ideological (as this blog
    states), but hardly responsible or practical. The only person StreetsBlog bothered to
    interview for this blog was a retired public transit employee, who is strongly
    biased toward light rail. StreetsBlog
    has made no attempt to present the other side to this issue. Gradually expanded bus service costs only a
    small fraction of light rail, is more flexible and more efficient in capturing
    riders. One 60 passenger bus can replace
    up to thirty 2-pasasenger cars at rush hours.
    Someone has to stand up and make the right decision with regard to
    spending priorities, and the state assembly did so. They should be thanked.

  12. Better late than never:

    Jeff, I didn’t say the sales taxes approved under the referendum couldn’t include light rail. I didn’t say light rail wasn’t part of the discussion. Of course it was on everyone’s lips.

    However, DOLRT advocates are using the referendum to portray this as a closed discussion: “voters approved light rail,” period, QED, shaddap.

    But they didn’t, Jeff. The referendum was to fund “public transportation systems.” I know because I read it, and then voted for it. (Making me one of the whopping 21 percent of eligible voters who bothered to vote either way.)

    If the referendum were meant to be about light rail and only light rail, why didn’t they word it that way? Wiggle room is a blessing when you want it, and a curse when someone else wants it, I suppose.

    There are lies, damned lies… and overused cliches that betray an absence of original thinking. Me, I pay attention to whoever in the room is foaming most visibly (uh, “flagrantly”) at the mouth.

  13. Jim, please stop playing “hide the ball”.

    As a prerequisite for the referendum, the counties had to approve bus and *rail* investment plans for the use of the sales tax revenues. The plans were subject to numerous public workshops, were presented online, and were subject to several public hearings by the respective boards of county commissioners. All of this was well before the referendum. That’s not to mention LRT’s inclusion in the STAC report and MPO long-range plans before then.

    Any voter could easily discover to what transit investments the referendum referred. They could easily find out that LRT was the centerpiece of the investment plans.

    By the way, the referendums were not *only* about light rail, so they weren’t worded that way. They provided for short-term improvements to bus service, BRT in Chapel Hill, a train station in Hillsborough, and other bus access improvements (e.g. sidewalks). So the generality of the wording had less to do with your alleged “wiggle room” and more to do with the broad scope of the investment plans.

    Finally, to keep with the sports metaphors, besides playing “hide the ball”, you’re also moving the goalposts. In your first comment above, you said, “Voters did not approve a sales tax to fund ‘light rail.'” In your second comment, you retreated from that statement with a straw man suggesting that the question was whether or not “voters approved light rail”. Voters clearly did approve a sales tax to fund light rail, so your first comment is false. Voters approved local revenue for a package of transit investments, the centerpiece of which is light rail. To mince words to suggest they didn’t because of the generality of the referendum language is tantamount to suggesting that voters in a parliamentary democracy never voted for the prime minister since they only voted for the PM’s party as a whole.

  14. When a legislative provision is inserted in a large omnibus bill by unknown members of the legislature at a very late stage and never openly debated, YES IT IS A SNEAK ATTACK. It is NOT “considered action” in any way shape or form.

    So shut up with your lies. It would be quite different if the legislative record had been different. It’s quite clear that the majority of the assembly never even realized that this provision was in the bill.

    If this had been openly presented, discussed, and debated, and then passed, I would have been disappointed, but it would have been the will of the people. As it is, it’s smoke-filled-backroom shenanigans.

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