Fixing Raleigh’s Embarrassing Lack of Light-Rail

Tell Durham and Chapel Hill to kiss off and you can build a decent starter system in Wake County, with little headache.

Light-rail in Raleigh… Plenty of people smarter than me have examined this issue and determined it to be an irredeemable pain in the ass. That said, I’m going to offer some simple suggestions for how I think you can make this work, starting with two very simple ideas: (1) you need riders, and (2) you need simplicity.

First, let’s tackle riders. Where are they?

Where are there large populations of people in the Raleigh area that need the ability to travel somewhere else, and lack other transportation options to do so?

Yep, the airport. No one flies into the airport and hangs out there all day. You fly in, travel into town to do something, and then go back to the airport to leave. And very few travelers fly in with their car, so they have to get one there; if they didn’t, there wouldn’t be 11 different rental agencies on-site. Any light-rail solution that doesn’t include the airport is trying to fail. You have people in a single spot, trying to be somewhere else. Help them get there!

Where is there another large population of traveling people who may lack their own transportation assets? Hmmmm… NC State (and to an extent, Meredith College). Freshmen aren’t allowed cars on campus. Other students may not have them for financial reason, or the lack of good parking options. You want riders? Give college kids access to transportation, and give them somewhere to go.

So airport travelers and college students are the core of your ridership, right? Not a bad start. That start gets even better if you institute a required fee for light-rail ridership at NC State (like Ohio State does with the Columbus bus system). If you charge every NC State student $5/semester for light-rail, and let them ride for free with their student ID, you get $150k/semester in guaranteed funding, and in return, you’re offering unlimited rides to the very people you wanted on the light-rail to start with. (Added bonus — they start becoming accustomed to light-rail before they’re commuters in the workforce, and bring that affinity for public transportation with them.)

Now, how do we keep it simple? Two ways: first, you keep the initial build-out in Wake County to minimize the competing governments disagreeing with every proposal; second, you start with a single line and expand from there.

The single line is actually pretty easy. We want airport travelers and college kids on the system, so we draw the first part of the line from the airport to NC State. Along the way, what do we pass? PNC Arena, Carter-Finley Stadium, and the Fairgrounds. Given the parking situations at all three of them, do you think there might be some attendees willing to forgo parking and hop on light-rail instead? Oh, and remember all those college kids without cars whose home team plays their games 5 miles off-campus?

So let’s start with a simple, single line. We start at the airport, run the line with drops at PNC Arena, Carter-Finley, and the Fairgrounds. And yes, I’m aware that PNC and the Stadium are very close together, but spreading over 2 stops instead of one lets the crowd spread out a bit more across multiple stops, and lets us put a station between the stadium and fairgrounds that could service both pretty easily. Leaving the Fairgrounds, we can actually hop on existing rail lines (again, simplicity!) toward NC State. Add a stop across from Meredith College to pick up some additional riders. Put 3 stations on campus — West (lots of residence halls and off-campus living), Central (academic buildings), and East (more residences, plus Pullen Park). Now, from the Bell Tower / Pullen Park Arts Center, we can add an easy stop on the other side of Pullen Park, and then extend our line with 2 other stops: Glenwood South, and the new downtown train station. You might want to throw in a stop back at the SAS campus along the way, since you go right past it and they’ll pick up some of your airport and commuter traffic.

We don’t extend west beyond the airport, because now we’re roping in another county government, who is going to fuss if their segments are built first. When Durham is good and jealous of the simplicity and popularity of the system, then we can look to extend from the airport to downtown Durham, connecting the DBAP, DPAC, and Duke. But to start with? Nope.

So we’ve got a single line that will get airport travelers past SAS, the stadium/arena/fairgrounds complex, NC State, and into downtown. That same route gets NC State students from campus to Glenwood South and their sports teams. It also gets sports fans between Glenwood South and the arenas, and gets everyone downtown to the new station to catch big trains wherever they want to go. That’s a pretty good start, and that one route alone should vacuum up riders and acclimate them to light-rail while we build out the next phases, which will be in greater demand by the people already used to them.

What’s next? We already mentioned the Durham option. You could stretch a line from Meredith College south along the Beltline and Hwy 1 into Cary and toward Holly Springs. If you wanted to build that into a crossing route that moves north some, then go from Meredith toward Crabtree Valley Mall, and then eventually up Glenwood to Brier Creek, and connect back to the airport from that direction. But all of this is long-term expansion. First, you have to get a single car full of riders running down a single, sensible track. To do that, connect populations of riders who need a lift with places they’re likely to go: the airport, the arenas and fairgrounds, the college campus, and downtown.
One line, one route, one county, one process.

Why don’t we have this yet?

Dad, husband, game commando, veteran, Army brat, writer, teacher

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