Local leaders lease bus rapid transit as cities grapple with traffic


By Gregory D. L. Morris

A string of serious crashes in recent weeks in which cars hit pedestrians and, most recently, killed a cyclist, have shed harsh new light on the chronic traffic congestion in and around Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Several jurisdictions are implementing traffic management plans and proposing new ones. But as development continues to grow in the region, officials at all levels agree that continuing to expand public transit is the best option.

“Chapel Hill has exemplary bus service,” said Rep. David Price (D-NC) whose 4and The district includes Chapel Hill and Carrboro. “The ridership has overtaken many major cities. This removes cars from the streets and emissions from the air. Price is a strong advocate for public transit as part of a multimodal approach to transportation. He’s particularly excited about bus rapid transit (BRT) plans for Chapel Hill (see map).

“BRT plans for MKL Boulevard and up to Southern Village are quite advanced,” Price said. “It’s a solid plan, seems very well designed. The layout of the area to be served is quite linear, therefore well suited. We had good leadership at Chapel Hill. There are high quality developments such as Meadowmont and Southern Village which are generally well designed. And now the BRT is progressing well.

According to Brian M. Litchfield, Director of Chapel Hill Transit, the North-South BRT project (https://nsbrt.org/) has completed 30% of its design work and continues to advance through the federal environmental review process .

“We anticipate the [review] process nearing completion in 2022 and are in the process of selecting a company to complete the final design. The project has received a favorable rating in the federal funding process and is pending federal funding of approximately $100 million. We are unable to submit a federal grant application until we have secured the necessary non-federal matching of approximately $45 million, which we expect to come from state funding sources at this point.

“Unfortunately,” Litchfield continued, “changes and delays in the state funding cycle have forced us to adjust the project schedule and budget and it now looks like construction could start in 2026 at the earliest ( originally scheduled for 2023), service not commencing until 2028 (originally scheduled for 2027).” Construction and service dates are subject to change based on federal and state funding.

“The state continues to work closely with the Federal Transit Administration and our federal delegation and identify non-federal funding that may assist with the project,” Litchfield added. “We recently secured a federal grant to help the city plan transit-oriented development around north-south BRT stations, and this is moving forward with the land use planning effort of the city. We are also in the process of selecting a company to lead the project through to final design.

The cities of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, along with the University of North Carolina, are Chapel Hill Transit (CHT) partners, and Carrboro Mayor Damon Seils served on the NS BRT Steering Committee. “Public transport is the No. 1 budget item for us,” Seils said. “That should and will continue to be very important.”

Seils was keen to point out that “traffic congestion in Carrboro has actually decreased over the last 20 or 30 years, even as development has progressed. One of the main reasons for this is that we intended to invest in public transport, as well as in pedestrian and bicycle routes. The decision to offer free admission 20 years ago shows this commitment.

Proposed north-south bus rapid transit route. Courtesy of the Town of Chapel Hill.

The Locally Preferred Alternate BRT Route (LPA) as adopted by Chapel Hill City Council includes sections of the corridor where existing traffic lanes will be converted to bus lanes and sections where new bus lanes will be constructed. In both areas, traffic lane widths will be reduced and pedestrian access improvements will be implemented along with the construction of a multi-use pathway on both sides of the corridor, except through downtown and campus .

Litchfield pointed out that “the APL followed an extensive community engagement effort and approval from the North Carolina Department of Transportation. [NCDOT]who owns and maintains the roadway the project plans to use. »

Michael Parker, Member of Chapel Hill City Council, noted that there is broad support for the North-South BRT. “There has never been any substantial opposition. The challenge has been the money, to get the non-federal funding.

In addition to serving on the city council, Parker is a past president and current board member of the regional GoTriangle system and a member of the board of directors of CHT, North Carolina’s second-largest transit system.

“We need to find $40 million to $50 million of non-federal money to activate federal funds,” Parker explained. “We got $14 million through the Orange County Transit Plan, which leaves us about $35 million to go. The plan has always been to get this from the state, but that continues to be delayed.

Noting that NCDOT’s financial struggles have been well reported, Parker added, “Typically, the department has just very little to spend on public transit. At this point it doesn’t look like money [for N-S BRT] will be available until 2026. And unfortunately, we can’t start now with funding in hand and get the rest when it’s available. Federal funds are not released until all non-federal funds are secured. »

NS BRT “is critically important,” said Parker, who served on the policy committee with Mayor Seils. “The route is the busiest corridor” and the multimodal reconstruction of the route to accommodate lanes reserved for buses, cars, bicycles and pedestrians is an essential step in land use planning.

“We are committed to creating transit-oriented corridors,” Parker explained. “Transport must be an integrated system; it’s something that people tend to dislike. Chapel Hill has the second-largest public transit system in the state, and until recently overtaken by Kansas City, had the largest free system in the nation. BRT is a logical extension. Once the north-south route is up and running, we can envision an east-west route which will be the high frequency backbone of an integrated system in Chapel Hill and Carrboro which will be coordinated and supplemented by local buses and the adapted transport.

A fact sheet on the NS BRT is available at https://bit.ly/3gE1aiu.

Gregory DL Morris is a Chapel Hill-based freelance journalist with over 30 years of experience in business, environment, energy and infrastructure. He has reported from all 50 states, eight Canadian provinces and 17 countries on five continents.

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