Commentary

Terry Rekeweg: A better light-rail plan?

April 28, 2014 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Similar to the beginning of a novel by Charles Dickens, it would be great to have a light rail train up and running. However, if this rail system could have greater financial feasibility, gain more transit passengers and eliminate many negative environmental impacts, then we can and should do better.

A new alternative light rail plan is being shown to public officials. It offers a faster train route beginning at Chapel Hill and ending at Duke University. I was the former transportation engineer at Triangle Transit and I worked on this new plan for two years. I saw that changes to the rail route also increased safety tremendously, therefore public officials should be made aware of this. Triangle Transit has shown no interest in considering an alternative rail plan, so I am bringing this plan forward with the help of other citizens. I believe that we can make a difference.

The new plan places a central rail transfer station near RTP. So instead of building a light rail line that only serves passengers going from Chapel Hill to Durham, the new plan has a bigger vision of setting up the initial stage for a rail system that radiates outward in 3 directions. Passengers could either continue riding the train from Chapel Hill towards Durham, or they could transfer to a rail line leading towards RDU, Cary and Raleigh. This simple and efficient rail system would serve the Triangle region well into the future and reinforce RTP’s place as the “downtown” center of the region.

It’s a cool idea to connect bikes and trains at three rail stations along the American Tobacco Trail, such as the I-40 pedestrian bridge at Southpoint. The RTP greenway is also nearby. Bikes to trains will continue to grow as a preferred and fun, urban travel option. The new rail plan creates synergy between many travel modes, which is of great interest to bike and pedestrian advocates.

It avoids environmental impacts to New Hope Creek, Sandy Creek and the Duke Forest natural areas along U.S. 15-501. By routing the tracks instead along I-40 and existing railroad corridors, $400 million in costs may be avoided.

The new rail route would eliminate 1.5 miles of elevated rail bridges. Given the choice, let's put the train on the ground and not in the air where possible. It also eliminates 27 new railroad grade crossings from being built. Given the choice, why add all these railroad crossings when the City of Durham already has 42 active railroad crossings?

The new rail route is straighter, allowing the train to reach its top speed of 60 mph and reducing travel time between stations. In contrast, the current rail plan has numerous speed-restricting track curves, producing more acceleration and braking and a less comfortable ride while trying to work on a laptop.

Active steps that Triangle Transit could take now is to hold public meetings comparing the two rail plans, and also to run the transportation model to get ridership numbers which would be a good first step to confirm whether the alternative rail plan really does have a big advantage over the current rail plan.

This may be a David and Goliath event where David has a high-velocity long-range sling, and the giant moves slowly with his over-sized sword. A conclusion to this tale is apparently going to take a very long time.

Terry Rekeweg lives in Raleigh.

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