BY JAMES CARNAHAN
While world leaders in Copenhagen are striving for a global response to climate change and the emissions that trigger it, residents of Carrboro and Chapel Hill have an opportunity to manage our own future emissions. The draft Long Range Transit Plan (LRTP) is currently available for public comment, and we would be well advised to take a look. This document will play an important role in future investments we make in transit infrastructure, and thus in our ability to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, increase the walkability of our towns and enhance the vitality of our local economy.
The LRTP envisions a â€œconcept service planâ€ featuring six â€œgatewayâ€ nodes at our boundaries, where travelers would be intercepted and transferred to a â€œrobust transit systemâ€ with services enhanced throughout Chapel Hill and Carrboro. â€œTravelers should be able to park their automobiles at the city boundaries and use transit to meet virtually all of their mobility needsâ€ (pg. 5-1). It appears to be mainly a congestion-mitigation plan, intended â€œto divert automobile drivers to transitâ€ (pg. 3-10).
It calls for parking structures costing $200 million at two of the six proposed gateways. Yet providing parking only encourages continued driving. If we had this $200 million to spend, why not spend it on the transit technologies that replace driving?
Does this LRTP effectively address the global challenges of peak oil (much higher travel fuel prices) and climate change (the need to restrict burning of fossil fuels)? Do the data used and the outcomes imagined accurately anticipate the choices people will be making in the face of the emerging global context, about how they travel and where they live? For the year 2035, the plan forecasts 744,300 daily auto person trips in the high-investment scenario that has only 56,300 people riding transit. Will so many of us still be driving if gas is selling for, say, $8 a gallon in 2035?
The plan favors Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes that bypass Carrboro altogether. It has â€œhigh investmentâ€ BRT in three Chapel Hill corridors and discounts the Light Rail Transit (LRT) corridor that parallels two of them. Yet it includes data showing the highest ridership would be on â€œGateway Service 5Câ€ (table 4-1 and 4-3). This rail corridor extends the regional LRT system through Chapel Hill and Carrboro on a 14.5-mile crescent between a node at the intersection of I-40 and U.S. 15-501 and one at the intersection of I-40 and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. This route passes through Meadowmont, N.C. 54 East, both downtowns, UNC Hospitals, the UNC main campus and Carolina North. It presents a seamless journey to all of these destinations for travelers from Durham and nodes along the regional LRT system â€“ stops where future growth would be concentrated in highly compact, walkable, mixed-use developments.
The policy group constrained the study to Chapel Hill Transitâ€™s present service area, making it impossible to accurately compare the economies of scale LRT offers over BRT. LRT appears to be the more expensive investment because the local segment is presented as being dependent only on local revenue sources. But if the regional transit system continues into our downtowns, Carolina North and northern Chapel Hill, it would be financed by multiple funding sources, including federal and state.
This electric-powered LRT system would offer regional travelers multiple stops in our downtowns, while the BRT, running on fossil fuels and requiring travelers to make mode changes, offers them only the intersection of Franklin and Columbia streets. Data from several communities show light rail operations to be cheaper than bus. Even electric trains powered by coal-burning plants produce less CO2 than hybrid buses, due to the poor energy efficiency of bus diesel motors.
The economic, social and environmental benefits of regional trains routed close to much of the commercial and institutional core of Southern Orange County â€“ including Carrboro â€“ are good reasons to refocus on the data that show the rail corridor attracts the highest local ridership. The LRTP will play a key role in shaping our share of the regional transit system. Emphasizing, now, our desire to have electric light rail come to our downtowns and Carolina North lays the necessary foundation. This regional transit outcome requires the unambiguous endorsement of our local elected officials for LRT extending into our towns.
Letâ€™s keep working for this unique and historic opportunity to forge a straightforward transit plan that directly links the heart of our community to regional destinations, serves the highest number of transit riders, invigorates both of our downtowns and induces the most compact, walkable, climate-friendly forms of future development.
See townofchapelhill.org/index.aspx?recordid=1218&page=22 to download the LRTP and to learn where to send comments.
Comments should be sent in prior to January 12.
James Carnahan is a founder of the Village Project and member of Carrboroâ€™s Planning Board.