How Duke killed an LRT

The Durham-Orange Light Rail was supposed to change everything. Here's what its death means for transit the US.

There’s a part of North Carolina called The Triangle: a Phineas-shaped region anchored by Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill.

In the 1980s, the Triangle was growing quickly as they transitioned from textiles and tobacco to tech and scientific research, fuelled by 3 major universities and the birth of the Research Triangle Park.

But high growth meant that “traffic congestion [was] becoming a serious problem” [pg 9], and “additional transportation capacity” [pg 35] was necessary to prevent handcuffing future development.

So a regional transportation authority called GoTriangle was created. They soon identified "a need for a rail or bus fixed guideway between Durham and Chapel Hill” [pg 1c], formalising what locals had been saying for decades.

Over the next 20 years, countless designs and assessments were made, and re-made, for what would become a state-of-the-art LRT connecting Chapel Hill with Durham - also reaching the historic “Black Wall Street” that was bulldozed to make room for a freeway.

Does that really surprise you at this point?

Not only would this LRT provide some semblance of social equality, it would also create a traffic-free link between UNC Chapel Hill and Duke, boosting the area’s competitiveness as a research hub.

Except: no LRT was ever built. After 2 decades of work and $132 million dollars, you still have to take the bus.

But the story of the Durham-Orange LRT goes far beyond one transit system.

This is a story about what happens when public interests clash against powerful opposition. It’s a story about democracy falling short. And - if we want better transit - it’s a story that we have no choice but to learn from.

So - what did we learn?