On June 27, the Chapel Hill Town Council will be providing recommendations to the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Transportation Advisory Committee regarding the alignment of the proposed light rail line which will connect Chapel Hill with Durham, UNC Hospitals with Duke Hospital and downtown Durham. As a Meadowmont resident, I'm particularly interested in the choices of routing which involve Meadowmont, and I'm interested in what others in the local progressive community think about the options.
When the approval of the Meadowmont community was up before Town Council in 1995, one of its selling points, and presumably one of the reasons Roger Perry and East-West Partners were allowed to build at such high densities, was the reservation of a 50-foot wide mass-transit corridor (see also here). The corridor is still there, still free of development, and passes by the commercial area and rental apartments before making a turn behind the residences in the Cedars retirement community.
Of course, promises are easy to make. In the year since Meadowmont was built and people began living here, opposition to the planned transit line has grown. It's unclear just how large it is -- while this Durham Herald-Sun article claims Meadowmont residents are "well-organized and have been voicing displeasure about the connector plan since 2006," it's not evident that this opposition is either particularly well-organized or large. What is true is that some influential members of the community have come out against it, and they are the ones making the most noise.
As a resident, I would welcome a rail line. It would provide much better public transit access to UNC Hospitals and, hopefully eventually, downtown Chapel Hill/Carrboro. It would also provide easy access to places to work and visit in Durham. It just makes sense to site a transit station in the midst of a community which was developed with the residential and commercial density to support mass transit. And it's quickly becoming clear that the way we live is becoming less sustainable; we can't keep building out further and further and expect people to drive everywhere. It's financial and environmental suicide. The Meadowmont alignment makes the most sense.
The alternative routing runs the rail line down NC-54, with a stop near the Woodmont development, before crossing NC-54 and continuing to the Leigh Valley area in Durham. The Woodmont development is outside Chapel Hill and largely undeveloped. So, essentially this alternative would place a rail stop in a much less dense neighborhood, where it's unclear who exactly would utilize the station. The proponents of this option have suggested that higher-density transit-oriented development be encouraged for the area around the station, but that's a big gamble. That's not to mention that the alternative stop is outside Chapel Hill and so any financial benefits that accure to the development around the stop won't go to either Chapel Hill or Orange County. Plus, notwithstanding the rail station any development would surely involve added automobile traffic, and this would dump even more vehicles on an already congested NC-54.
That's not to mention that choosing the alternative outside Meadowmont makes a mockery of the Meadowmont approval process. Why condition approval of Meadowmont's higher density on reservation of a mass transit line if it's not going to be used for a mass transit line?
Meadowmont still has great potential to be a new urbanist community which showcases the way forward in a world where oil is much more expensive. It's not nearly there. Housing is very expensive, except for the limited affordable units. I'd be shocked if there were more than a handful of households with fewer than one automobile per adult. A transit line with connecting bus access could give residents a good alternative to driving, and make novel services such as car-sharing a possibility. It would also help deliver more customers to a still-struggling commercial area. To place a station in an empty area where there's little development is a wasted opportunity.
If anyone in or near Meadowmont would be interested in joining me in making our caes before Town Council on June 27, please let me know. Thanks.