When State Legislators Defunded Light Rail, a City Stepped Up

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Growing cities know that effective transit is not optional.

North Carolina legislators don't exactly have a track record of supporting projects related to clean tech, mass transit or sustainable development. In fact, from banning planners from using future sea level rise projections to battling with tech giants over the future of Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards (REPS), it would be fair to say that there has been a decidedly anti-environment bent to our local politics of late.

So it was not exactly a surprise when legislators voted to limit state funding to light rail projects earlier this year, putting a much anticipated Durham-to-Orange-County light rail transit (DOLRT) project in significant jeopardy.

The trouble was, businesses and communities have long been making decisions based on the understanding that the line would be built. Having moved to the Triangle region of North Carolina in 2006, and to Durham in 2012, I can personally attest to the fact that the city centers of both Durham and Chapel Hill—which used to be extremely spread out and car centric—are decidedly denser and more populated than they were a decade ago. And much of this increased density is centered around the proposed route of the DOLRT. (So much so that I would actually argue that changed development patterns are at least as important as ridership in terms of impact of projects like these.)

Luckily, at least as far as this transit-leaning resident of Durham is concerned, our local leaders are more positive when it comes to the benefits of light rail. And that's why Durham County Board of Commissioners have voted unanimously to approve a pledge filling the $57 million gap in finances left by the state legislatures earlier decision.

This is, of course, a fairly local interest story. In fact I hesitated on whether it has relevance for a broader TreeHugger audience. But I think there is a lesson here for the wider environmental community—and that's the fact that low carbon, transit-oriented and people-friendly development can win significant support, even in the face of organized opposition. And much of that support comes not just from do-gooding environmentalists, but from city and county decision makers who understand that car dependent, fossil fueled models for prosperity are not going to create winning cities moving forward.

And it all happened just as I was getting ready to pay my property tax bill:

Oh, and we're gonna get some electric buses too.