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By Liz Bloomhardt
Published October 26, 2011

Ditch your car. Take the train. Vote for transit.

On Nov. 8th, the Durham County ballot will include a half cent sales tax referendum for public transit. If passed, the money will support the implementation of the Durham County Bus and Rail Investment Plan (DCBRIP).

This is not a Duke election, but this is a referendum that will affect how people get to Duke’s campus.

The regional plan starts with expanded bus service in the first 12 to 18 months. Additional busses will be added on high-traffic routes and additional routes will be added in underserved areas.

This alone should be enough to make the referendum worth voting for by members of the Duke community. Duke Parking and Transportation (DPT) hopes it is, because the passage of this referendum will make it possible for DPT to achieve its goals of reduced single occupancy vehicles (SOV) on campus.

In addition to increased bus service, the DCBRIP also outlines the creation of satellite park-and-ride lots and neighborhood transfer stations. Neighborhood transfer stations would presumably make riding the regional busses more convenient for those riders whose trips do not necessitate going all the way into the downtown station. Park-and-ride lots similarly provide an entry point to the regional and University-based transit systems. These lots and transfer stations would be constructed over a 20-year period of development.

The bus-mode objectives comprise the most feasible part of the plan. Aside from the small infrastructure projects, the technology and skills are already in place to capitalize on the passage of the referendum.

These regional options and infrastructure are critical to the success of DPT’s objective to reduce the carbon footprint of the University transportation sector. DPT will likely continue to incentivize employees, faculty, staff and students to utilize these regional transit options and therefore ensure at least one source of demand. Provided the alternatives achieve convenience and efficiency, the need for those incentives should diminish over time.

The final two phases of the plan require substantial capital support from the federal and state governments, making them far less certain even with passage of the referendum.

The second phase of the plan calls for development of a light rail line connecting Chapel Hill at UNC to Duke and Durham. The proposed route would presumably replace the existing need for the Robertson Scholars Express Bus and the existing DATA routes that serve the 15-501 corridor.

Although the rail line does not appear to coincide with the existing 15-501 corridor, it has 17 planned stations over the course of its proposed 17-mile alignment.

I have long been at a loss over what to make of the 15-501 corridor between Duke and Chapel Hill. It has always struck me as a wasted opportunity and a great candidate for a limited-access highway. Instead, you find sprawling big-box development that necessitates gigantic intersections with absolutely no human scale and inefficient traffic flow.

The final route of any light rail that is built stands to drive future development of the corridor for decades. The proposed light rail route as depicted in the DCBRIP runs to the south of 15-501, avoiding it all together. For the duration of the viability of the existing development in that stretch, the car centric 15-501 and new light rail to the south will compete. Even if light rail is a clear win for commuters, it needs more than that to be truly viable.

The third phase of the DCBRIP calls for commuter rail service between Durham, Research Triangle Park, Morrisville, Cary, Raleigh and Garner. Although serving a sizable portion of the commuters who travel to campus on a daily basis, it is unclear that this transit mode would actually connect to campus specifically, necessitating a transfer. On the other hand, this transit mode would also serve the airport in close proximity, as well as schools in the Raleigh area.

The sales tax referendum for public transit, if passed, will be a boon for Durham and for Duke. Durham has been on a roll with successful revitalizations of several downtown areas. Regional transit will likely continue the momentum of that success. Duke likewise benefits from a healthy Durham region. It helps to attract top talent, and ensures a vibrant economy for the future workforce.

Vote for the future of transit on Nov. 8th.

Liz Bloomhardt is a fifth-year graduate student in earth and ocean sciences. Her column runs every other Thursday.

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