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Illuminating the light rail

In 2011, Durham residents voted to increase sales tax by a half-cent to fund a light rail project connecting Durham and Chapel Hill. Seven years later—and little to show for that decision—residents of both cities are still waiting to see what the future of the $3.3 billion project will look like under President Trump’s infrastructure plan. Durham Mayor Steve Schewel maintains confidence that the plan will still come to fruition considering that the line will not only connect three major universities in the Triangle, but also two of North Carolina’s largest employers: Duke University Hospital and UNC-CH. While this projected plan has generated excitement among many—including Duke students that may want an alternative to taking a pricey Uber ride to Franklin Street on Halloween—there are serious local effects when light rails are built and these potential externalities must be thoroughly considered if Durham is going to responsibly develop into a larger, transit-oriented city.

The construction of a light rail in Durham could bring more investment to Durham and, potentially, more jobs, but the light rail could also have devastating effects on Durham’s current vulnerable residents. When it was extended in Portland, Oregon, the MAX Yellow Line light rail caused rapid gentrification in the last remaining neighborhood in the city with low income housing. Durham would be nearly guaranteed these same consequences in areas within a half-mile radially from light rail stations. Yet, as Bull City considers the project, suggestions for the theme have included ‘grit’ and ‘Black Wall Street’ which are painfully ironic given how likely poor black communities will bear the brunt of the negative side effects. The Yellow Line’s story is incredibly pertinent here because the line also focused on using local art to honor a neighborhood’s culture that it later effectively destroyed.

It goes without saying that everyone should have access to safe, reliable, quality public transportation, and the light rail displays a commitment by Durham and Chapel Hill officials to increasing public transit in the region. Their plans for improvement are not robust enough, however. While there are complicated federal policies at play that mean the $1.6 billion in federal funding could not necessarily be spent on other forms of public transit, Durham should consider how to leverage public transit to increase livability and accessibility for its citizens. This includes increasing serviceability of transportation within the city, and could also incorporate creating laws against employment termination as a result of busses not running due to things like inclement weather. Access to public transit is crucial for an equitable city across socioeconomic bounds. Low-income individuals are twice as likely to die while walking or biking, both activities necessary for accessing distant bus stops and stations. If Durham is going to invest a billion dollars in light rail, city council also needs to also consider how to give citizens access to it through bus connections, safe sidewalks throughout all neighborhoods and safe bike lanes.

Considering Durham and Chapel Hill’s commitment to constructing the light rail, Durham must guarantee more money be spent on affordable housing now, lest it becomes too expensive to invest meaningfully in at all later on. Home prices in East End neighborhood have doubled in only three years, and as gentrification continues to occur throughout the city, the money available for affordable housing will continue to have lessening buying power. Steve Schewel’s tenure as mayor must find a way to go beyond simply doubling spending on affordable housing so the stock is plentiful enough before the projected completion of the light rail, or any more gentrification in Durham in general. As Durham continues to grow, we must consider the effects of our growth and take real actions to mitigate the negative impacts felt. Public transit is not a zero-sum game; transit investment does not have to equate to citizen displacement. Durham is at a crossroads—it must decide if it truly wants to be an accessible city for all, and act accordingly.


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