The Future of Transit

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A model of the Virgin Hyperloop One pod came to Frontier RTP in October.

In its 150th year, Durham threw itself a party. From April to October, the city held a series of ceremonies touting the rich history behind each street, moment and community now bound in a city of such acclaim that it draws 20 new neighbors a day. The anniversary also provided another occasion to wonder just how Durham should accommodate all those new neighbors and all those new cars.

Growth has put the region on countless national lists of the best places to live. But, the traffic is a different kind of superlative. While Durham adds its 20 new people a day, the region adds 80, threatening to overwhelm roads ill-suited for such high volume. Commutes are maddening. Fender benders can back up traffic for miles. Durham’s leaders have long known that something needed to be done. 

In some form over the last 20 years, Durham County and Orange County leaders settled on a light rail system linking the two areas. It would solve congestion on the 15-501 corridor and be a state-of-the-art mass transit system worthy of cities of the future. Voters in Durham and Orange counties passed sales tax increases to fund a transit plan with light rail at its center, and the state agreed to pay 25% of the total cost. Officials secured a major Federal Transit Administration grant to pay for another 50%, and Duke, UNC and other key stakeholders signed non-binding agreements of support. 

Then in February, after two decades of planning, the Durham Orange Light Rail plan fell dead at the party and the guests accused one another of its murder.

The collapse inflamed resentments that may take years to ease, but, city leaders say, it also provides an opportunity. 

The light rail consumed a huge portion of the sales tax revenue, and now that the money is freed up, who knows what could happen? Will the same disputes that doomed the light rail resume? And with the traffic still terrible, can the region afford another 20 years of planning? What can Durham expect in the process to find what’s next?

Recent interviews with more than 20 government officials, business leaders and residents across the region suggest that, despite their severe disappointment, Durham leaders are intent to learn from their mistakes, are determined to find alternative ideas, and are eager to move past assigning blame.

A BITTER DIVORCE

Every suspicious death deserves an autopsy. 

For many advocates of the light rail plan, its collapse was not just suspect, but an outright sabotage. The fight over who to blame has been well-covered, however, and all sides can name their villains with little help. Several sources for this article were far more candid off the record, but on the record they repeatedly expressed the genuine need to move on.

 So we’ll be brief.  

The spread of light rail systems across the country began in the 1960s, according to a study by Thomas A. Garrett, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. And while the heavy rail systems of New York, Chicago and the like were born out of necessity, Garrett wrote, “The development of modern light-rail systems has been motivated by their potential to not only alleviate traffic congestion but to foster economic development.” 

For a region poised to boom, the allure was too bright to ignore. 

Light rail’s significance to the region grew profound. It could safely carry en masse the Durham residents who worked at UNC, and the Chapel Hill residents who worked at Duke. 

The final numbers called for 17.7 miles of electromagnetically powered rail from UNC Hospitals to North Carolina Central University, connecting the three major universities and 19 stations at 23,900 trips a day.

Then, to put it simply, disagreements occurred. 

The repercussions laid bare some of Durham’s long-standing divides of race and class, and feelings remain raw. But, Durham owns the collapse together, and the problems light rail was meant to solve are only getting worse.

WHAT NOW?

In October, a model Virgin Hyperloop One pod came to Frontier RTP in Research Triangle Park. The company has a testing track in Las Vegas and is considering Durham as a site for another. The company says that one day the pods could send passengers about their business at 600 mph through vacuum tubes. Early limited testing proved successful, and if ever deployed, such a system could revolutionize mass transit. But for now, these are just dreams. Durhamites will not be hurtling through vacuums anytime soon.  

At this point, officials just want to listen.

“The stakeholders never really signed up” with the light rail plan, Mayor Steve Schewel said in a recent interview. Those non-binding agreements allowed for a false sense of security.

“We got way too far down the road” before engaging fully, Schewel said. “Before we start spending the tax dollars in large amounts,” he said, “we need a public process where we discuss it as a community.”

On this, all sides agree.

Shelley Blake CurranGoTriangle’s interim CEO, said that after the board voted to abandon light rail, “the teams almost immediately started working again to revise the plan.” 

“The good news is, there are a lot of dedicated people in the Triangle region who want to see some sort of regional solution,” she said. “We all realize that the traffic is not getting better.”

Durham’s planning department held a community engagement meeting in November 2019 at Hillside High School.

A recent report by the American Public Transportation Association, commissioned and paid for by GoTriangle, articulated the lessons learned from the collapse and made recommendations going forward. Much of what the report said should have been done, had been done to varying degrees, but the assessment is a sobering call that Curran, who was not with GoTriangle during the crucial early planning, acknowledged.

“Everyone has to be on board from the beginning,” she said. “We are already doing better.”

Durham City-County Planning Department is taking the lead on revising the city’s transit vision.

“Historically,” Patrick Young, the department’s planning director, said, “our planning process has been monopolized by only a portion of our community.”

Part of the adjustment is to make the process a “peer-to-peer” engagement. 

The department is employing more than 100 “outreach team members” and “ambassadors” to “find innovative ways – meeting in people’s living rooms, going to people’s workplaces, kind of whatever it takes – to get meaningful feedback,” he said.

The planning department is ready and has “a lot of experience in facilitating and convening multidisciplinary partnerships,” he said. 

The partners that built the early agreements on the light-rail deal will be important in making sure the community has its say, Young said. They will also have to ensure that their own communication remains open.

“We need to reform that consensus,” Young said. 

ALL THE SMALL THINGS

Mike Charbonneau, GoTriangle’s chief communications officer, said that while they wait for a larger plan, several small improvements can be done now to make a big difference in the existing bus systems.

“Changing a bus route to every 15 minutes in some cases can make the difference between taking two hours to get to work or 45 minutes,” he said. “And for that person who has to walk from work to a bus stop, having a cover over their head when it is pouring rain or 100 degrees, it’s life-changing.”

In the meantime, GoTriangle is still managing a potential regional rail line from Raleigh to Durham, which is in the feasibility stage, and it and GoDurham are working on improving bus service.

“There are 20,000 boardings a day on GoDurham,” Mayor Schewel said. “The system is not as good as it needs to be; we need to continually improve it.”

Some of the planned improvements as of last summer include adding 114,437 new service hours, starting construction on 31 bus stop designs and choosing 50 new stop locations. All Durham buses have free Wi-Fi. 

Sean C. Egan, who was hired as director of Durham’s Transportation Department in October 2019, says these changes mean a lot to riders. 

Egan, who most recently served as the director of financial reporting for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, said in a phone interview that Durham’s setback may feel staggering, but it is far from unprecedented. The trick, he said, is to remember what is really important.

“Keep the focus on the riders,” he said, and remember that the frequency and reliability of service are their chief concerns. The bottom line for them, he said, is not economic development, but rather “Will there be a bus arriving in the next few minutes?”

NUMBERS SPEAK THEIR TRUTH 

Some 23,500 people commute between Durham and Orange counties each day, and while many of them take the bus, the far majority drive, often in single occupancy.

So the next transit plan needs to be adaptable to the demands of both the specific areas and the region as a whole.

One possibility is Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), a “high-quality” bus service that is reliable, fast, comfortable and cost-effective. 

Joe Milazzo II, the executive director of Regional Transportation Alliance, helped organize a trip for the region’s transit officials to Richmond, Virginia, to see its new Pulse BRT system, which carries some 7,000 daily riders across 7.6 dense miles in 35-37 minutes. It can drive development, too. The total assessed value of the “Pulse Corridor,” Richmond transit officials say, grew from $8.74 billion in 2015 to $10.92 billion in 2019. “I will be shocked if BRT is not part of Durham’s plan,” Milazzo said. 

BRT can also be implemented according to the needs of the community, he said. Some city BRT plans use wide bus-only lanes. Others employ a system that prolongs green traffic lights for oncoming buses. And it is cheaper than other major mass transit systems. 

Whatever comes next, Milazzo said, Durham’s engagement plan is the right call. 

The light rail plan might have been perfect for the market at first, Milazzo said, but “the market is different now. There are simply more people.”

“You should never be amazed how long it takes transportation projects to get built,” Milazzo said. “You should be amazed anything gets built to begin with.”

Rep. David E. Price might concur. Price, who represents parts of Orange, Durham and Wake counties and is a ranking member of the House Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Subcommittee, was a significant advocate for the plan and for the federal funding. When the plan ended, he called it a historic setback. 

This time, he said, leaders simply had to do better.

“One doesn’t just submit a new plan to the FTA at the drop of a hat,” he said. “You really need to do considerable regrouping, develop a viable plan and make sure this kind of breakdown in the process won’t occur again.

“We don’t have any time to waste.”

LISTENING AND LEARNING

The community’s overall resolve is unchanged. The planning department is counting on it.

On a cold Thursday night in mid-November 2019, Lisa Miller, a senior urban designer for the department, stood in front of the attendees of the first community engagement session, which provided snacks and child care at Hillside High School.

“We are committed,” she said, “to ensure that people who haven’t typically been included in decision-making are heard.”

The event was one of five “Listening and Learning” sessions held over a week last November.

The attendees wrote their transit hopes on sticky notes. They spoke in small groups and listened to one another.

Before finishing their snacks and gathering their children, some of the attendees walked to a board with “I wish transit could …” written at the top. They stuck their visions onto the blank space in fluttering Post-it notes of coral, tangerine and teal. We need benches and crosswalks at the bus stops, they said. Let the buses bypass traffic, they said. “Reach and serve everyone.”

Then, no doubt, some of them left to catch the bus home.

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Michael McElroy

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