Revisiting the demise of the Durham-Orange Light Rail

When was the last time you took a ride on public transportation at Duke?

And no, the C-1 and the Shooter’s Bus don’t count.

The answer to the question for most Duke students is probably never, except for those patient enough to take GoDurham’s 11 Bus to downtown Durham.

It’s not that Duke students don’t ever leave their dorms (Uber drivers are a frequent site around the campus), but rather the fact that transit options are not offered for destinations popular with students.

Until four years ago, it looked like transit scarcity would be relegated to a distant memory.

The Durham-Orange Light Rail was marketed as the solution to the Triangle’s transportation trilemma. Easy access from campus to UNC-Chapel Hill, downtown Durham and North Carolina Central University was crossing the gap from a dream to reality in 2019 ­­— until Duke denied GoTriangle, the regional transit authority, from acquiring the right of way through campus, effectively killing the project. While our Triangle neighbors saw this failure as merely another example of Duke’s aloofness, Duke students missed out on the opportunity to expand their mobility without the prohibitive costs of car ownership. As Duke may yet again be kingmaker in future Triangle transportation initiatives, Duke students today should be aware of this history and grasp the unrealized power that lies in their collective voice.

The dream began in 1993, when the Triangle Transit Authority included the light rail in a regional master plan. After nearly two decades of delays, squabbles over routes and financial projections, the project took another big step forward in 2011 when Durham County voters approved a sales tax to fund the project, followed by Orange County in 2012. After clearing the time-consuming hurdles of producing a scoping report and environmental impact statement, the project seemed on track to be shovel ready by 2020.

But one monumental obstacle still stood in the light rail’s way: Duke.

Throughout the planning process, Duke had been coy about whether it would bless the project, expressing concerns about tree loss on campus in 2013 but signing a memorandum of understanding in 2016 with GoTriangle. But by the beginning of 2017, Duke began to express a slew of concerns about the light rail, which would have run through Duke property along Erwin Road and NC 15-501.

Noise. Disruption to medical care. Traffic. Blocking the right of way for emergency vehicles.

Consequently, GoTriangle responded to these concerns by agreeing to elevate the portion of the route along Erwin Road, which added another $90 million to the project’s cost. By 2019, the project had been in the planning stages for eight years; state law and federal funding necessary for the project to continue was contingent on GoTriangle acquiring the right of way through Duke by November 30th of 2019. Duke refused to sign an agreement, which would have allowed the light rail to move forward, citing disruptions to the hospital and the project went off the rails.

The costs of this failure extend beyond the $157 million of taxpayer dollars spent on planning the light rail. In anticipation of the light rail, Durham began rezoning areas around the stations to encourage denser transit-oriented development. Now with no light rail, these districts are left orphaned in a sea of car centric development with inadequate public transit.

Perhaps the greatest consequence of the project’s collapse was that it induced a new wave of urban sprawl throughout the Triangle in the last decade. Urban sprawl describes the low density, car dependent development in formerly rural areas, which is detrimental to both human and environmental health. The one million new residents projected to move to the Triangle by 2050 need somewhere to live and finding that somewhere is becoming increasingly difficult as the region experiences an acute housing shortage. This drives residents to the edges of the metro area, creating severe gridlock, environmental degradation and hour-long commutes. Extra expenses due to rising gas consumption and housing costs will strain the Triangle economy in future decades, pushing subsequent generations into poverty.

Already, dubious new developments have resulted in a plethora of environmental issues. The 751 South development, on the fringes of Durham, got bulldozed into reality after the state legislature ignored the significant water quality problems the expansion would cause in Jordan Lake. Accommodating more people in less space around light rail stations would have significantly curtailed sprawl.

Duke itself lost out too. One of the university's greatest obstacles to achieving carbon neutrality by 2024 has been mitigating emissions from transportation, given that most employees drive to campus every day. Even Duke’s climate action plan states the desire to “advocate for local transit options that meet the needs of the university, its students and employees.” I can’t think of a better way to do this than allow for a light rail system to serve the campus at no cost to the university.

Furthermore, universities and public transit are a match made in heaven. Public transit provides students with mobility without the prohibitive costs of car ownership. Universities provide stable ridership and population dense nodes that support transit systems. Other universities have embraced transit and thrived as a result. West Virginia University’s Personal Rapid Transit system seamlessly connects its three campuses. University of Maryland allowed the Purple Line light rail connector to site four stops around its campus despite significant disruptions from construction. These projects provide illustrative counterfactuals into what the Durham-Orange Light Rail could have been.

Why dwell on the past when we can’t change it? Understanding past failures allows us to adapt when future opportunities arise. Right now, a commuter rail system is under consideration, which would connect Durham to Raleigh. Durham is striving to enhance its pedestrian infrastructure through an expansion of the local trail network. While these initiatives may not be as exciting as the light rail system, they would significantly enhance the region’s sustainability.

As Duke has a significant influence on the success of these projects, the university has the opportunity to be on the right side of history and promote mobility for all residents of the Triangle, regardless of their car ownership status. While Duke students may only be transient Triangle residents, our status as members of the Duke community grants us outsized influence over the future of these projects. Let’s wield that power wisely and prevent history from repeating itself.

Aaron Siegle is a Trinity sophomore. His column typically runs on alternate Fridays.


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