Happening Now

North Carolina Sees a Future Built on Rail

January 7, 2019

by Sean Jeans-Gail

While it is commonly asserted that passenger rail only makes sense in the Northeast, there are dozens of thriving and soon-to-be rail systems around the U.S. that prove otherwise. Durham, North Carolina is just one such example, boasting what will be a heavily utilized GoTriangle light rail service for thousands of local residents.

In 2020, Durham and Orange County will be starting construction on an 18-mile electric rail line. It will serve three of the ten largest employers in North Carolina and two-thirds of Durham Housing Authority homes. The line will also connect directly to a planned commuter rail line that will run between Durham and Raleigh, with a shuttle to the airport.

In an op-ed written by Steve Schewel (Mayor of Durham,) Wendy Jacobs (chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners), and Ellen Reckhow (County Commissioner and chair of the GoTriangle Board of Trustees), the three North Carolinian leaders lay out a vision for the region’s future:

It has taken us 20 years to get here, and now we face a very stark choice. In the next 25 years, Durham alone will grow by 150,000 residents. The Triangle region will grow by 1,000,000 people. We will either begin to build our transit system now, or in 15 years we will be the largest metropolitan area in the nation without a rail system. Our quality of life will die as traffic crawls along our bumper-to-bumper streets and freeways.

In April, GoTriangle, our regional transportation agency, will submit an application for a $1.24 billion federal grant to build the Durham-Orange light rail line, which will form the first critical backbone of a regional rapid transit system.

All the indications are good that these funds will be available to us. We have strong support from Sens. Tillis and Burr as well as from Rep. Butterfield and Gov. Cooper. Crucially, Rep. David Price is the new chair of the House committee that oversees transportation appropriations, and he is an ardent champion of the project. This is our time.

This project will create 30,000 jobs, but Schewel, Jacobs and Reckhow see this infrastructure investment as something more—part of the existential fight to maintain the area’s character in the face of a rapid urbanization: “We will be fighting the highway gridlock that threatens our quality of life, and we will be doing the single most important thing we can do locally to fight climate change.”