FTA Approves Light Rail Development for Chapel Hill/Durham

LightRailTriangle Transit Authority tonight announced that the FTA has approved the request to begin development of a 17-mile light rail line that would connect Durham and Chapel Hill. The line would serve UNC, east Chapel Hill, the 15-501 corridor to South Square, Duke, Downtown, and NCCU. The project would use no rail corridors west of Duke University, instead using existing highway right of way.

The development phase will likely take 2 years, followed by a 3 year engineering phase. If all goes as planned, service would begin as early as 2024, and will cost $1.34 billion.

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Whah! 1.34 billion for a 17-mile project? That comes to $79million per mile, but expect costs to probably double if all goes as planned. For comparison’s sake, the Triangle Parkway toll road cost 137.5million for a 3.4 mile stretch ($40m/mi) and the Western Wake Freeway cost $446.5 million  for a 12.6 mile stretch ($35m/mi). Those projects were completed in 2012.

Let the shouting match begin. People who oppose this are “backward”, “stupid”, and “living in the 50s” while those who are for it are “blowing all of our money” and “jacking up taxes”. Both sides have good points. A friction-free connector of the three universities and downtown Durham will really help all entities from a productivity standpoint. Perhaps if node-oriented development occurs, then fewer cars will be on the already congested, pathetic pair of roads that connect Chapel Hill and Durham.

On the other hand it isn’t prudent to ignore the costs and the state of technology. Light rail is a really expensive way to move people. One only has to look at Disneyworld to see a large transit system that has opted for bus transit for all expansion in the last 32 years. Also consider the prodigious number of transit systems that carry unsustainable costs. Are ridership projections accurate or would it turn out to be like Austin’s MetroRail which averages fewer than 2,500 riders a day? Granted, Austin’s routing execution was poor and it runs few trains per day, so it’s considered a $130 million flop in that city.

My prediction is that this line will get built, but the costs will more than double by the time it is built. Given the large number of college-oriented riders this system would have, it would probably be well-traveled, so we, the public, just have to figure out if we want to support its cost structure.

map of planned route at N&O


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  • huslage Said:

    The real question is why this costs so much.

  • dmccall Said:

    Costs so much period, compared to a road, or compared to other cities’ LRT projects? If you mean the latter, I’d bet that this project, which mostly follows existing roads, would have to have many flyovers and right-of-way acquisitions. Most LRT projects start by utilizing existing rail corridors, which is pretty simple stuff. If you mean the other two, well, that’s the way rail transit is, I suppose. I’m kind of surprised that technology hasn’t helped to brings costs down, but I guess roads and cars cost considerably more than they did in the ’80s, too.

  • Jonathan Hawkins Said:

    There’s a lot more technology involved in constructing rail (electrification, signaling, fareboxes, etc.) in addition to things like station construction which do not happen with roads obviously. Plus, with a rail system the rolling stock itself is a capital investment, whereas with a roadway the individual user supplies their own equipment to run on it. The flyovers will certainly beef up the cost, but highways often have those too as well as right-of-way acquisition. There’s also just a general problem in America for infrastructure construction of all kinds (roads, transit, anything) of costs that are often significantly more than equivalent projects in Europe and elsewhere abroad. This line will definitely come out above average on a cost per mile basis, but there have been a number of recent light rail projects that are far higher (including Seattle’s record $179 per mile, but that involved tunneling).

    Austin is a really poor example to use. It’s not even technically light rail. Though the rolling stock resembles light rail, it is heavier, and the stop spacing (only 9 stops over 32 miles) and frequency and span (there are only 18 trips each way for the entire day) place it firmly in the commuter rail category.

    Light rail has actually been one of the rare forms of transportation investments where a lot of recent systems have found forecasts to be heavily understated. Charlotte, Minneapolis, Houston, and Phoenix all found that they were exceeding forecasts for the year 2020 within their first year of operation.

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