DCCA Board Letter to Triangle Transit - October 2014 on Light Rail


DATE: October 3, 2014

This is to document the concerns and issues related to the recent approval of the proposed C-2 light rail line running on and along the southerly side of NC 54 across Barbie Chapel Road and Downing Creek Parkway. We think that it would be a grave mistake to pursue the C-2 proposal for the reasons below. In steering our discussion we think that it is helpful to reflect on the following questions:
1.) Which proposal (C-1 or C-2) will have the least impact on established uses and on residents of the local area?
2.) Which proposal will provide the greatest benefit and utility to local residents and the public at large?
3.) Finally, which proposal will best promote public safety and mitigate the potential liability and costs associated with the light rail system?
I. Statement of Purpose
In general, we are concerned that the C-2 alignment runs contrary to the stated goals of the NC 54 Corridor Master Plan (the “Plan”) to reduce traffic congestion caused by increased use of NC 54 as a primary road between Chapel Hill, South Durham and Raleigh. The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project shares these goals, calling for the construction of a light rail line to carry riders/commuters in order to decrease the dependence on individual forms of transportation. However, the C-2 proposal seems to undermine the smart, long term development of the NC 54/I-40 Corridor (the “Corridor”) as called for in the NC 54 Corridor Master Plan. In particular, the C-2 configuration could decrease public safety, increase public liability, may introduce future unnecessary public expenditures and still fail to alleviate traffic congestion. The Final Report of the Highway 54 Corridor Study clearly states "Alignment C1 will have no adverse impacts along the NC 54 corridor" but additional costs will be incurred to configure the C2 alignment to make it work with a grade level separation. Thus any cost benefit presently indicated for the C2 alignment should be disregarded at this time.
These comments are intended to widen the discussion between the alternate light rail routes so as to produce the best result for the residents of Durham and Orange Counties. Failure to produce an efficient and functional Corridor will equate to an inefficient and ineffective use of public funds. Further, said failure could result in the later reconfiguration of the Corridor to meet public needs causing unnecessary future delay and expenditures. This memo is meant to ensure that the best decision is made prior to implementing the Plan in earnest.
II. Ingress and Egress from NC 54 to Downing Creek and Little John Road Neighborhoods
The C-2 alignment will have an immediate detrimental effect on ingress and egress on properties lying south of Hwy. 54. The C-2 alignment calls for a grade level light rail crossing at Barbie Chapel Road (south of the Hwy. 54 Intersection), and continuing across the entrances of the Downing Creek and Little John Rd (Sherwood Forest) neighborhoods and the future Hillmont development project (the “South Section”). This will cause an immediate detrimental impact to South Section Residents and commuters using Barbie Chapel Road. This configuration would cause additional delays and would provide no relief for the congestion problems plaguing the Corridor. On the contrary, the C-1 alignment would have much less effect on the ingress and egress to the Meadowmont Subdivision (the “North Section”) since the rail line would cross prior to reaching Meadowmont Lane over an area presently used for both commercial and residential traffic. Further, Meadowmont possess two other entrances along NC 54 while Downing Creek and Sherwood Forest contain only one entrance on NC 54. In other words, the C-1 proposal would have little impact to ingress/egress to Meadowmont residents while the C-2 proposal could have a severe impact on the ingress/egress of Downing Creek and Sherwood Forest residents.
More significantly, the C-2 proposal seems to run contrary to the “super street” planned for the intersection of Barbie Chapel Road and NC 54. The Highway 54 Corridor Study calls for replacing the present intersection with an overpass. This would allow traffic from Barbie Chapel Road to pass over NC 54 and freeing NC 54 traffic from the existing intersection. Said overpass could also be constructed to accommodate foot traffic from the South Section to the North Section at a seemingly small cost.
However, it seems antithetical to place grade level light rail tracks over Barbie Chapel Road (as shown in the C-2 proposal) impeding the use and utility of the planned overpass to both commuter and pedestrian traffic. Further, if the tracks are laid across Barbie Chapel prior to the overpass construction, it could require later reconfiguration of the rail line, or worse, prevent the intersection improvements as planned. Simply put, under the C-2 proposal, there seems to be no coordination between the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Plan and the Highway 54 Corridor Study Plan’s for construction and development.
III. Population Density and Commercial Development Is Already Concentrated in the North Section
The North Section, which includes Meadowmont, was planned, approved and developed in 1995 as a Mixed Use Community. Meadowmont has existing retail (restaurants/grocery), office and governmental facilities (school/ABC Store) as well as high-density and single family residential uses. This present and existing use will likely continue in perpetuity. Meadowmont’s Commercial District is the focus of the community and the area containing the highest density of residents. As such, it has become a focus of commercial and social activity for the surrounding Corridor community, which includes the South Section and well as neighborhoods located west on NC 54 going toward Chapel Hill. Further, the Lloyd Property, which lies just east of Meadowmont, is zoned for additional mixed use development. As such, the North Section is likely to see a continuing development and concentration of commercial uses and, therefore, will continue to maintain its focus as the center of commercial and social activity in the surrounding Corridor community.
On the contrary, Downing Creek was approved and developed in the early to mid-1980s as a residential community, with no intent or plan for commercial and mixed use development, and the Sherwood Forest neighborhood predates that. Neither neighborhood contains business, office or commercial development as part of their planning, and do not contain the facilities nor infrastructure needed to accommodate a commercial use. Though a small part of the South Section is zoned for mixed use and part is slated for development (Hillmont), there is no significant commercial use currently in this area. Further, the commercial/mixed use planned on the South Section is diminutive in stature as compared to the present and future commercial/mixed use planned for the North Section – which might also include a mixed-use development on the Lloyd Property. Even if development of the South Section proceeds as planned, it will never reach the level of development which presently exists on the North Section.
Simply put, the North Section is and will remain the center of commercial and civic development for the Corridor. Logically, a transit plan must properly service the area of highest utility and need; a failure to do so will equate to the diminished usefulness of the whole system and lead to future costs and other unintended consequences. Construction of a light rail station on the South Section (as contemplated under the C-2 proposal) will do nothing to service the higher population density and continued commercial vibrancy and usefulness of the North Section.
Failure to leverage the existing and planned use of the North Section will diminish the utility to all. Failure to properly service the North Section’s residential population and commercial uses will diminish the purpose of the light rail system, namely decreasing traffic congestion on the Corridor, decrease automobile traffic into Meadowmont’s Commercial District and increase accessibility of the area to other light rail users. Logically, making it more difficult to access Meadowmont’s Commercial District will discourage use of the light rail system and encourage use of personal transportation and, therefore, continued use of NC 54 as a primary transportation route.
IV. Increased Pedestrian Traffic Crossing of NC 54
By far, our greatest concern with the C-2 proposal is that of public safety. An unavoidable consequence of constructing a light rail station on the South Section is that it will increase pedestrian traffic across NC 54. First, since the North Section has (and will continue to have) a higher population density, a greater number of commuters living in the North Section will be forced to cross NC 54 to access the light rail line. Second, light rail riders will be forced to cross NC 54 to access the North Section’s retail, commercial and professional businesses. Regardless of the proposed or eventual development of the South Section, light rail riders still must reach the North Section’s shopping and services (Meadowmont’s Commercial District/Lloyd Property) which will propagate an unnecessary need for pedestrians to cross NC 54.
With the C-1 alignment, South Section residents would be required to cross NC 54; this is most certainly an insignificant percentage to those potential Meadowmont resident commuters and Corridor community consumers desiring access to the North Section.
It goes without saying that a South Section station will unnecessarily increase pedestrian crossings of NC 54. Logically, and most disturbingly, additional pedestrian crossings will also increase the risk of grave bodily harm (or even death) by automobile collision to citizens using the light rail system. In addition, at present, there is no plan to construct a pedestrian bridge over NC 54 which means a grade level crossing must be attempted – thus further exasperating the risks. It certainly begs the question of whether pursuing the C-2 proposal, over the seemingly less risky C-1 proposal, unnecessarily increases the liability exposure of the approving municipalities and/or Triangle Transit tasked to run the light rail line? This statement is not meant to be provocative or place worry in the minds of decision makers; rather, it is meant to reveal the unforeseen consequences and potential costs of the C-2 proposal and to allow for the best decision to be made for the Corridor as a whole.
Due to the increased burden (and peril) to pedestrians of having to cross NC 54 to access the proposed South Section station or access the Meadowmont Commercial District, fewer people will chose to use the station. This will undermine the central purpose of the light rail line and the Plan; namely, decrease auto traffic on NC 54, decrease auto traffic into Meadowmont’s Commercial District (both commercial and residential) and increase access to other light rail riders.
Most tragically, crossing NC 54 will be particularly burdensome on the elderly and handicapped who may have the greatest need to use the light rail system. Furthermore, the presence of an elementary school in Meadowmont raises the possibility that students might use the rail line and, therefore, have to cross NC 54.
V. Unknown Additional Government Expenditures Associated with C-2 Proposal
The C-2 proposal could require additional and unneeded government expenditures to deal with increased foot traffic across NC 54 and reconfiguration of streets to accommodate a future overpass. More than likely, construction of a pedestrian bridge would be necessary to accommodate the increased foot traffic. Also, it is possible a second pedestrian bridge would be needed to provide convenient and safe access to any future development located on the Lloyd Property. The cost of a pedestrian bridge is presently unknown.
Please note, the burden and inconvenience of crossing NC 54 to access the North Section would remain. Since the C-2 proposal would remove the light rail station from the local area’s focal destination – Meadowmont’s Commercial and Residential Districts – the inherent inconvenience would equate to decreased participation and use of rail services in the local area. If the area is made less accessible, more citizens will choose to drive as opposed to using public transportation. Logically then, increased rail usage would reduce Corridor congestion and, therefore, reduce the risk of injury to those who would still have to cross NC 54 to access the Meadowmont Commercial District and the North light rail station (i.e. the South District Residents).
Most significantly, from a cost standpoint, it is uncertain how the C-2 proposal will affect or inhibit the Plan's improvements for the Barbee Chapel Road intersection. It is possible that a grade level rail crossing over Barbie Chapel Road could result in later costs associated with moving the light rail line, further elevation of the Barbie Chapel overpass (to accommodate the tracks) or, worst of all, make it impossible to implement the Highway 54 Corridor Study recommendations. All of these possibilities would result in unknown and uncertain future government expenditures needed to alleviate past developmental missteps.
In short, the transportation system should deliver its users to the locations where they desire to go. Any failure to match the needs of transit users will produce unforeseen additional capital costs, reduced efficiency, decreased rider participation and undermine the system’s mission and purpose.
VI. Environmental Impacts
There is concern that the C-1 proposal will have a negative impact on the Little Creek Conservation Area located just north of the Meadowmont Subdivision. It is agreed that a full environmental study of both C-1 and C-2 is needed in order to determine the costs associated with pursuing the C-1 Route. In addition, possible alternative routes through the Corridor Area (Center of NC 54 or North of NC 54 Bridge over Lloyd Property) should also be included.
However, any conclusions reached by the upcoming environmental studies must be weighed against the great costs associated with pursuing the C-2 proposal. Notwithstanding the utilization difficulties and potential future costs discussed above, the C-2 proposal could significantly and substantially increase risks to general public safety. In essence we must ask, how extreme must the environmental impacts be to be to justify the increased risks associated with pedestrians crossing NC 54 to access mass transit? We would venture to say that the environmental impact would have to be so extreme, with no possibility of mitigating that impact, as to leave the nature preserve uninhabitable by its flora and fauna. Anything less than this standard would seem to unnecessarily place the public at risk.
VII. Impacts on Area Residents
The construction of the light rail system will have major impacts (both positive and negative) on residents surrounding the Corridor. Many of these impacts will affect area residents’ economic interests and quality of life. However, said impacts would affect both the North and South Sections in the same manner. For example, the noise produced by the rail line could be considered a nuisance by nearby residents. Or, some argue that a nearby rail line will decrease adjoining property values. However, these externalities and costs will have the same impact on both areas, depending on which proposal is pursued. These are merely the costs that must be paid for developing the light rail system which only one group can bear. Since only one group can bear the cost and the burden would be equal between the two, said costs should be held equal when comparing the other benefits and burdens associated with the competing proposals. A failure to hold these unavoidable impacts constant would result in favoring one group over another, to the disadvantage of all stakeholders involved.
As noted above, Meadowmont was envisioned, approved and developed with the intent and understanding that it would be the Corridor’s premier residential and commercial center and the Corridor’s hub of public transportation. This is the reason that Meadowmont has bus stops and additional parking! In effect, a public use was envisioned for Meadowmont; its Commercial District, wide streets and present access to public transportation echo this planned use.
On the other hand, a public transportation hub was never a contemplated use when the Downing Creek and Sherwood Forest neighborhoods were created. Conversely, neither has wide streets, bus stops or a commercial center. Due to these distinct differences, it would seem that any effect on housing prices, would be more significant to South Section Residents.
VIII. Alternative Routes
It is possible that alternative routes could alleviate the issues raised to the C-1 and C-2 proposals. A route running north of the future Barbee Chapel Road bridge taking the light rail track over and across the Lloyd Property is one possibility. Such a route would eliminate the need for pedestrians to cross NC 54 to gain access to the Meadowmont Business District, would not restricts in the ingress/egress to the South Section Subdivisions, would not interfere with the Intersection Plan and would provide transit access to future development on the Lloyd Property. Further, it could not be argued that a route running just north of the Barbee Chapel Road intersection/overpass would have any greater environmental impact on the adjoin wetland than that of the present C-2 proposal.
Also, a route running the middle of NC 54 would partially eliminate some concerns raised by the C-2 proposal and make the station accessible to both sides of NC 54. However, it would require additional costs to build a pedestrian overpass with central access since it would not eliminate the need to cross Highway 54.
IX Conclusion
In conclusion, we are gravely concerned that pursuing the C-2 proposal would be a mistake to the detriment of all. In addition to the added burdens on the South Section Residents, the C-2 proposal would undermine the mission and purpose of the NC 54/I-40 Corridor Plan – reducing the Corridor’s ever increasing congestion. Further, it could compromise public safety by requiring riders to cross NC 54 to access the North Section. Finally, it could lead to additional government expenditures need to rectify problems associate with pursuing the C-2 proposal. We hope that our efforts allow the committee to reach a studied and equitable decision with regard to light rail corridor. We truly wish for the best result for the citizens of Durham and Orange counties and the future of mass transit between Durham and Chapel Hill.