Durham transit plan spends $1.1bn on buses and commuter trains

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Oscar Dantzler, 68, drops off groceries he bought from Food Lion to wait for a GoDurham bus, March 31, 2020. GoDurham is gradually improving its bus stops, with new shelters, benches and other upgrades.

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When County Durham last updated its transit plan, in 2017, around 85% of local taxes and transit fees were earmarked for rail, primarily the Durham-Orange Light Rail line.

With that plan failing in 2019, the latest transit plan, now up for public review, puts much more emphasis on improving local bus service.

The county plans to spend more than $1.1 billion on public transit by 2040, much of it coming from a half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2011. As part of the plan revised transit plan, about 73% of that money will go to manufacturing buses. more convenient and easier to use, while 27% is devoted to Durham’s share of a possible regional commuter rail system.

The shift from train to bus reflects the will of residents, said Aaron Cain, planning director for the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization, which directs transportation spending in the western triangle.

“We’ve certainly heard from the public that the focus needs to be on current transit riders and their current needs in the local and regional bus system,” Cain said in an interview. “So we’ve been working to make sure we can fund as many of these improvements as possible while still providing funding for a possible commuter rail system.”

Since voters approved the sales tax in 2011, Durham has spent about $173 million on transit projects, with the largest share, $126 million, going to the broken light rail line. (Orange County donated $31 million.)

Most of the rest was spent on improving local bus service, increasing frequency on some routes and improving bus stops. The public wants more, Cain said.

Bus projects in the revised plan include:

Expansion and refurbishment of Durham Station, the city center bus hub, with more seats, toilets and boarding bays. The city received a federal grant of $10.8 million to cover 80% of projected costs. Construction is expected to begin next year.

Improve bus stops throughout the county at a rate of approximately 75 per year. Improvements include new shelters, benches and lighting as well as better connections to sidewalks.

Increase in frequency of buses, to every 15 minutes on the busiest routes and to a minimum of 30 minutes on all routes by 2027.

New routes, including cross-town routes that do not require riders to pass through Durham station. A cross-route between Duke Regional Hospital and the VA Medical Center is expected to begin within a year, with a new route between East Durham and NC Central University coming by 2027.

Details of the commuter train are yet to come

The Durham Transit Plan also calls on the county to help design and build a regional commuter rail system.

GoTriangle is still preparing a proposal for the commuter rail system, so the details are not settled. The trains would follow the existing North Carolina Railroad line from the west side of Durham through Research Triangle Park, Morrisville, Cary and Raleigh to Garner or Clayton.

Local governments must approve the commuter rail project before construction begins. If they don’t, Durham will have to adjust its transit priorities again, Cain said.

“If at some point a decision is made to no longer pursue the commuter rail project, we will regroup and consider what other opportunities may be available,” he said.

The public can view proposed updates to the Durham Transit Plan and complete a survey at engageurham.com/durham-county-transit-plan/. There will also be an open house on Thursday, July 28 from 4-7 p.m. at Durham Station, 515 West Pettigrew St., where city, county, GoDurham, GoTriangle and organization staff metropolitan planning will hear from residents.

County Durham commissioners and the boards of GoTriangle and the metropolitan planning organization are expected to decide whether to approve the plan this fall.

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Richard Stradling covers transport for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, as well as ferries, bicycles, scooters and simply on foot. Also, hospitals during the coronavirus outbreak. He was a journalist or editor for 35 years, the last 23 of them at the N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.


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