Light Rail “Streetcars”: the Tail that Wags the Dog
Passenger rail is back in the Raleigh area news. You may have noticed the following stories since the last DLA Blog update.
- Durham officials have approved a fall public referendum to to fund local commuter rail, while Wake County plans a referendum for the following fall, hoping a more favorable economic climate will improve chances of passage.
- In the meantime, a plan for a new Downtown Raleigh Commuter Rail station is taking shape.
- Raleigh city officials are moving closer to recommending a light rail route through the Downtown.
With the focus on commuters, it’s the 30,000 government workers driving daily into the city that drive Raleigh ridership projections and elicit the political weight needed to keep the plans for light rail transit moving forward.
There is a bigger picture . . . and one that public officials appreciate, but how do we get from here to there?
Getting the initial funding approved is step one. This will begin with enhanced bus service and a 37-mile commuter (Park and Ride) rail service with stops in Cary and Downtown Raleigh.
Plans for the 18 mile light rail portion of the rail corridor from Northwest Cary through Downtown and north to Triangle Town Center are firmed up, with the exception of the short (1 mile) route through Downtown Raleigh.
What are alternatives for routes through Downtown Raleigh?
Three months ago the public saw an array of 9 conceptual alignments under review by the transit authorities for the Downtown section, which were soon reduced to 4. Now, after further analysis and negotiation among experts and city officials, it seems we’re down to just 2 that continue to be supported by the city and Triangle Transit. These alignments, labelled D6 and D6A are actually pretty similar, and best of all, neither involves the elevated flyovers opposed by downtown residents. There are pros and cons to each of the routes with respect to impacts on traffic flow, noise and urban design, but both meet the primary demands of accessibility to the government complex.
The key consideration is access to rail transit for government workers.
The Passenger Rail Task Force has recommended route D6A, with two government stations on Salisbury Street, while the City Planning and Development Unit recommends route D6, with a government station on Harrington Street (between Jones and Lane Streets).
The City Council will need to make a decision on which of these two alignments to recommend to Triangle Transit, but intends to first get the public’s input at a workshop/hearing expected some time in early August . . expect an announcement soon.
What is the bigger picture when it comes to light rail vehicles?
All the study and analysis on rail alignments to-date have focused on the accommodations required for long, unwieldy light rail vehicles, which are designed principally to transport (Park and Ride) commuters within the rail corridor. Because of their length (nearly a block long), they present many difficulties navigating corners and changes in terrain within densely packed city streets.
The bigger picture involves a future phase that offers much smaller, light rail “streetcars”, which stop frequently and can easily move within traffic on city streets. Now, finally we’ve reached the dog’s tail. How so? Consider that even though commuters represent 28% of trips, the majority (72%) of local travel [see chart below] during non-peak hours of the day are for recreational, shopping and other personal business. This is where these streetcars really make the difference.
A future street car system will bring residents in and out of Downtown Raleigh from many different directions. Potential corridors that have been previously discussed include:
- Glenwood Avenue from the north
- Saunders Street from the south
- Hillsborough Street from the west
- New Bern Avenue from the east
It is this longer range vision of an integrated passenger rail transit system with a mix of high speed, commuter rail and a true modern (light rail) street car system that will ultimately deliver the full benefits of reducing road congestion, while igniting a wave of transit oriented (walk to stations) higher density infill development that is critically needed to effectively support our city’s continued growth.
Many are talking about the high cost of the rail transit system and questioning whether we can afford it. When you look at the benefit to the environment (less traffic, energy consumption), quality neighborhoods with a rich mix of housing, shopping and transportation choices, and even the health benefits of more people walking and biking to work and play, the return on this investment is clear.
Have some thoughts about light rail coming to Raleigh? Share them here.