It has been nearly a year since Duke University rejected plans for the controversial Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit, leading to GoTriangle ending the project, and questions surrounding it still abound.
To sum up, the light rail was planned to be a 17.7-mile train with 19 stops, and estimated to cost $2.5 billion. Construction was supposed to begin this year and last until 2028. The train had been proposed back in the ‘90s, then fallen out of the political conversation for some time, and GoTriangle, the organization in charge of transit in the greater Triangle area, brought this project back to the table again halfway through 2012.
In 2014, analysts told GoTriangle there was room for growth in the bus system and the light rail, or DOLRT, was not needed. In 2015, Duke University told GoTriangle it was not on board. But by late 2018, GoTriangle put the light rail at the forefront again and that’s when this light rail became a politically charged, toxic and explosive issue.
First of all, even in 2012, this project was too out-of-the-blue for residents of this area and made no sense. A light rail line going from East Durham and N.C. Central University to Duke and UNC hospitals, with no access to the airport, or Research Triangle Park, or Raleigh. Why?
So that’s still the question for this $2.5 billion train? Whom was it supposed to serve? Was this train for meeting the needs of residents or for developers, or who was it for? In this first story, I take a look at the route on the interactive map on GoTriangle’s web site to get some basic facts.
The light rail’s first stop begins at N.C. Central University at 1208 S. Alston Ave., not far from the O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium on a street lined with residential homes. This first stop is actually near several bus stops. It goes up Alston Avenue toward the Durham Freeway, where it has its own bridge over the highway, and designates several large properties as parking areas.
This first stop already raises many questions. Why start in a residential area instead of the more commercial Fayetteville Street just a couple blocks over? Why have it in the midst of what looks like eight bus stops, according to Google Maps?
By the time the train gets to the Durham bus station on Pettigrew Street, it will have passed by some dozen bus stops.
As you keep going on the route, it becomes more and more apparent that its stops are mostly nonsensical. The proposed 19th stop that would have tunneled under Blackwell Street at American Tobacco Campus — Why? — the “Buchanan Boulevard” stop, northwest of Brightleaf Square far from street traffic, but where condos in the $300,000 to $1 million range have been built. The “Ninth Street” stop is not quite on Ninth Street. It’s on Erwin Road across from the site of the former Sam’s Quik Shop, where a seven-story apartment building is under construction.
From there, it would have continued on Erwin Road to Duke University Hospital and VA Medical Center, and then passed the existing more affordable apartments and lower income neighborhoods on Erwin Road. This is where students of Duke, employees of Duke and the VA and area young professionals live and have lived for decades. The light rail would have ruined the character of the area in front of Duke Hospital, disturbed the neighborhoods and businesses and stressed them with ongoing construction until 2028.
From Erwin Road, it gets on to U.S. 15-501, then meanders down to the University Tower area and connects with 15-501 Business in a way that’s not quite clear. After that, instead of continuing on 15-501 to the front of the Target, it actually gets on to Shannon Road where it plans to have parking facilities overtaking a stretch of businesses including the Cook Out restaurant.
So, did the general public look at the route map and decide the proposal to take a commercial stretch with a popular restaurant is no big deal? Or is this a sign that the light rail was so off-putting, that most people did not even look at it at all?
The light rail’s ridiculous route does not end there.
The train goes up University Drive and has a stop at the At Home shopping center, goes up University Drive some more, then suddenly cuts between two apartment complexes, Mission University Pines and Springfield apartments – takes a route through the woods – and cuts through another shopping center so it can get back on to 15-501 Business.
On 15-501 Business, it does not have a stop at the busy Oak Creek Village shopping center. Then, it stays on 15-501 for just a little bit before suddenly swerving into the woods – again! — but not toward the always crowded New Hope Commons shopping center with Wal-Mart, but toward Patterson Place, with Kohl’s and Home Depot. And the train actually gets on to the streets of the shopping center itself, so that light rail passengers can look out the window at Panera Bread and the T-Mobile store.
From Patterson Place, it cuts between the cluster of restaurants with Outback Steakhouse and Kanki instead of simply getting back on 15-501. And instead of taking the existing bridge over Interstate 40, the light rail proposed to get its own bridge, leading it into a light residential, wooded area, where it planned to have another stop along with a swath of land for parking.
So, thus far, if a student had gotten on the train at NCCU, they would have sailed past dozens of bus stops by now, seen the train they ride on wreck the feel of the American Tobacco area, gone to stops conveniently located right at pricey condos, gone past people not living in pricey condos, gone past shopping centers where they would want to buy goods and necessities, not been able to get burgers and milkshakes at Cook Out, and gotten some interesting views of the woods. I don’t know, would this light rail have gone over a waterfall at some point? Was this a ride at Disney Land only for rich people or was this a public transportation system?
This mind-boggling route of the light rail does not get better. Going down I-40, it does not take the highway exit to N.C. 54. No, that would be too convenient.
It takes a swerve – again, into the woods – toward what turns out to be a railway maintenance yard right in the middle of residential areas. This is the spot rezoning done by Durham City Council that neighbors filed a lawsuit against in December 2018. And then the route spits the train out onto N.C. 54 at the barely two-lane, very rural and quiet George King Road.
That road is much lower than N.C. 54, so would there have to be a bridge built for the train?
On N.C. 54, this train has a stop at “Woodmont.” It’s not the subdivisions of Woodcroft or Meadowmont, but “Woodmont,” which is not the name of any actual, currently existing development in Durham.
Then it has a stop at the Friday Center. Finally, a relevant stop! Too bad the train didn’t pick up any passengers from major subdivisions that would have liked the convenience.
After that, onward to East 54, but not the front of East 54 where shops are and where Glen Lennox residents can cross the street and easily catch a ride. The train makes a swerve – into the woods, but briefly this time – so it can go to the back of East 54, closer to the golf course.
Then, another swerve into the woods later, it gets back on to U.S. 15-501, where instead of taking the four-lane Manning Drive straight up to UNC Hospitals where it can have a stop at student dorms and the Dean Dome, it instead goes into the two-lane Mason Farm Road, again with residential homes
The light rail’s final stop is in the midst of the student housing and back of the parking decks, not the front of UNC Hospitals where patients, families of patients, hospital employees and others actually need transportation.
In conclusion, this train was a nightmare.
To not even have a stop at New Hope Commons, the shopping center with Wal-Mart, Best Buy and Barnes & Noble — Did the planners think about the route at all? Have they ever lived in or ever visited Durham? Have they ever looked at a map of Durham?
How many trees was this light rail planning to cut down? How many residential areas would this have wrecked? If Duke had not turned it down last year, would we be seeing construction for bridges over the Durham Freeway and I-40 for the light rail now, and elevated tracks for a train bursting out of an empty rural road?
And in the seven years of news coverage between 2012 and 2019, did no one look at the map? Did no one look into the bus stops people weren’t using that were already on the path of the light rail?
Here’s the map from 2012.
According to WRAL’s reporting, the DOLRT project will have spent up to $159 million of taxpayer money through 2020, $5 million of which will still be spent this year. After $159 million, this meandering route that would not have served the needs of people who already live in Durham and Chapel Hill, was the basis for the $2.5 billion Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit.
In 2017, the Federal Transit Administration somehow said it would give GoTriangle $1 billion to match state and local contributions toward this $2.5 billion project that would not have gone to two of the busiest shopping centers in Durham, disturbed and stressed out the very people who were working and paying taxes for this to be built. And it would not have even served needs of UNC Hospital patients in any normal way.
But on GoTriangle’s glossy web site, there is a detailed “Transit-Oriented Development Guidebook.”