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Writing on the light rail

If all goes as planned, the Durham-Orange Light Rail (DOLRT) is set to begin construction in 2020 and commence operations between Chapel Hill and Durham in 2028. When it will tentatively open, nearly ten years from now, the system will connect UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, downtown Durham and NCCU through an 18 mile-long light rail in about 45 minutes. At the moment, Duke has withheld support and land donations to the project, citing specific grievances related to the light rail’s potential effect on operations on activities at the medical campus and traffic off of Erwin Road. Various stakeholders in the light rail debate—community activists, alumni, environmental groups, etc.—have written in support of the light rail to President Price, urging him to sign onto GoTriangle’s funding application to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) before the April deadline. As Price and the powers that may be deliberate on whether or not to support the light rail, the topic itself deserves a critical editorial examination. Rather than being a cut and dry issue—as if the system could conceivably cure all of Durham’s municipal problems in the flip of a rail switch—the light rail represents a controversial urban renewal project that the University community should deservedly be cautious in considering.

Arguably one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in the country, the Triangle boasts a notoriously car-dependent infrastructure spread across low-density communities in three major urban centers: Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. Along with significant population and economic growth, the resurgence of the Triangle region over the past few decades has also resulted in greater traffic gridlock, less affordable housing, greater environmental pollution and other major social problems that plague the region at the end of the 2010s. In discussion for over twenty years, a light rail connecting all the major vertices of the Triangle seemingly represents a public-transit oriented solution to such problems, providing an affordable, efficient and environmentally sustainable method of traversing the region’s low-density urban sprawl.

Nonetheless, the light rail has also received criticism from its opponents, who cite the high public costs, low ridership and potential gentrification that could result from the system’s construction. Light rail systems have emerged in the past decade as popular, and controversial, additions to public transit in urban centers all across the country—with decidedly mixed results. In Atlanta, for instance, investments in a municipal streetcar system failed to invigorate ridership, and the city, as with most metropolitan regions across the country, faces declining public transit usage as commuters continue to drive to work. Other critics have claimed that light rails naturally lead to gentrification and skyrocketing rents in neighborhoods surrounding stations, leading to a dearth of already scarce affordable housing in American cities. As with most public projects of considerable scale, the Durham-Orange Light Rail has also specifically attracted a number of NIMBY-(“Not in my back yard”)-based concerns, including a class-action lawsuit from Durham residents objecting to the route’s construction alongside their neighborhood near Farrington Road.

Alongside this deeply divided debate surrounding the light rail’s net effects on Durham, it is also noteworthy to consider Duke’s general relationship to Durham as a significant stakeholder in many urban renewal projects. When the city dismantled the historic Hayti neighborhood during the 1960s and 1970s to make room for Highway 147, the University tacitly accepted the arrangement, which resulted in the destruction of hundreds of black-owned homes and businesses in Durham. Students, graduates and well-heeled affiliates of Duke have benefited financially from the revitalization of the city—often to the detriment of low-income residents being forced into other neighborhoods. In 1999, when plans for a light rail connecting Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh were being considered, University administrators balked at the project, particularly at the “change of character of the neighborhood [around Duke]” the project could potentially cause.

Being transitory members of the Durham community who exist mainly inside our campus bubble, undergraduates most likely do not hold a major stake in the future of the light rail. Rather, whatever effect the light rail may have for the next 20 years will land mainly on the shoulders of Durham residents who will bear its success—or failure. In making an informed decision on whether or not to finalize the University’s involvement in the light rail, administrators should pay heed to voices in the Durham community who depend on Duke’s action (or inaction) in achieving community-centered goals. Given Duke’s relationship to such projects in the past, hopefully whatever Price’s decision ends up being is one that will benefit many outside the walls of this college campus.

This was written by The Chronicle’s Editorial Board, which is made up of student members from across the University and is independent of the editorial staff. 

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