Light Rail: What works for Raleigh


Is anyone aware of a light rail system or commuter rail system in the US which has failed to stimulate development around stops? Are there systems that have been abandoned due to lack of use? No one expects rail to replace the automobile but it can be a transportation supplement and it can be a huge incentive for dense development. People in cars tend to shy away from density due to parking/traffic I think.


There have also been some legal challenges to the project by environmental groups, but last I heard the construction contracts (nearly a billion dollars’ worth) for just the section between 401 and 40 were awarded.

It is really absurd, though, when people decry transit investment because of its cost and subsidy, then turn around and passively watch (or even support) even greater investments in new highways, which are also subsidies (as are all transportation infrastructures, really). I don’t have the numbers to back this up (yet), but I might even make the claim that highways are an even greater subsidy than transit, for lower efficiency and greater negative environmental impact.

Something that really limits transit funding in this state is the NCDOT’s budget allocations. According to this article the DOT is limited by law from spending more than 6% of its budget on public transit, aviation, rail, bike, or pedestrian projects combined. That’s a really small slice of the pie, especially when you consider that about 50% of the budget goes toward construction (presumably highways and pseudo-highways) and 27% goes toward maintenance. This is with a $5 billion yearly budget.

The exact formula for allocation transportation dollars is described further in House Bill 817 (2013), but it’s so drenched in legalese that only a lawyer (not me) can make sense of it. In any case, here’s a pie chart of how the DOT will be spending this year’s budget.

From what I can tell, the state isn’t doing its urban areas any favors by using so small a portion of its DOT budget on sustainable transportation investments.


We are caught in a never ending repeating cycle like much of the rest of America, including some big, and fast growing cities like Houston, Phoenix, etc. We have a built environment that’s way overly weighted based on single family homes and cars. This is exacerbated by more recent development that adds a dose of limited access to where those cars can go, and we have a recipe for sustained car dependence. The occupants of all of those homes make up the lion’s share of the electorate, and very few of them would vote to fund something that’s against their personal interests. It’s just human nature.
The key to a transit future is convincing society that we should invest in rail first so that we can build the high density nodes as we continue to grow. We have to sell a future that this benefits those who will continue to drive from their single family homes in the burbs to their various destinations. It’s got to be WIIFM.
In the meantime, I recently read a story that only puts Raleigh’s MSA in a leading position on one alternative to driving alone: working from home. If we can continue to also grow that community as we pursue transit, we can hit the problems from 2 fronts.
We can also all make decisions about how live our lives to reduce the amount of driving that we do. One benefit to living in a dense urban area is having more things available to you by foot or bike. After moving to downtown Raleigh in the mid 90s, the mileage I travel by car per year has been reduced by more than half because there are things that I can walk to, and the things that I drive to are often shorter distances.


Going back to the idea of using Charlotte as a model, I wonder if this could be a good case study to get the more conservative/NIMBY people on board?

Of all the places and people who could be saying this, this is what they said:

“We talk about roads,” [a local South Carolinian official said] late last week. “We’ve widened most of the roads. […] Everyone is not going to be able to get in their own car, with the growth coming just over the next 10 years, and go their way into the future. That is not going to be a workable option — period.”
“It’s getting more expensive every day we delay the decision to do it."


The SC burbs of Charlotte will become the NOVA of South Carolina over time. Expect them to be politically and culturally different from the majority of the state, as their perspective is shaped more by their proximity to Charlotte than by anything in their own state.


You’re definitely right. York County has seen explosive growth over the last few decades (almost all suburban in nature, of course) and traffic is getting worse. It would be a very long light rail ride to Uptown Charlotte from there, but there is definitely growing interest in extending the Blue Line southwards. From what I understand, Pineville is rather regretting their decision over a decade ago to not connect to the original line (it currently ends just north of the town).

And Gaston County is also showing increased interest in transit connections, because they too have many residents commuting into Charlotte, and understand that traffic cannot realistically be mitigated by building more lanes.

To me, the real barrier to getting conservatives and NIMBYs on board with transit investment is educational. From my perspective, transit is a much better investment economically than highways, but the vast majority of people don’t recognize that. Making clear the true cost and subsidy of highways vs. transit would be an important start.


I’m as conservative as they get, and this is one of my arguments. The region is going to continue to grow. We can build a starter-system now or wait twenty years and do the same. Prices never go down over time.


Interesting article I saw the other day about Denver’s system:

"A lot of those are decisions are political. It may well be that RTD actually wanted to get to get this transit right into the middle of things and they got pushback.

When you put transit into the middle of things, it has impacts. There may be fewer places to turn left. There is going to be construction when it gets built. Those businesses, those residents are going to be concerned.

What you see often is the decision makers [saying to themselves], ‘You know this is too hard. We’re just going to go for the easy path that doesn’t have resistance.’

If you are building a transit line and nobody is against it, it’s probably a bad project. Because it means you’re not going where it actually affects anybody. You’re going where nobody wants to go."


One model we should not follow is the Atlanta Street Car. Part of the pitch was helping with transit to football games at the Georgia Dome, but they built in shared traffic on a street. Apparently there were so many people and cars and in the street this weekend that they ended up canceling service. We should go dedicated lane or off street for any light rail we consider.


Yeah, I totally agree. In car dominated cultures, that’s more novelty than it is a real solution for when it’s truly needed.


I wonder if economics and federal funding lapses could help to shift the conversation…

I don’t know about y’all, but I think it’s about damn time we treat mobility as a fundamental need, with new projects explicitly being solutions to them. This looks like a good way to start that paradigm shift:


This is probably not going to be a popular post, but I don’t think that we should be investing in rail to solve decades of suburban development problems. I simply don’t believe that you can fix a suburban problem with an urban solution. Nothing more than the heavy commuter rail that follows existing tracks between Raleigh and Durham should pursued in my opinion. I say this because I see absolutely no efforts on the part of our suburban communities to create the sort of dense developments that would make the investment pay off. Frankly, Raleigh’s core isn’t yet dense enough, but at least it has a reasonable path toward becoming the sort of place that is truly multi-modal. If we are ever to prepare Raleigh for the future, we need to focus on the core, not prioritizing how to make non-walkable, car dependent, single family parceled parts of the metro change, because they aren’t going to change.
However, I do think that there is something that Raleigh can do, and that is to create a central city solution that would encourage more downtown and downtown adjacent development. Miami has such a system with its Metromover. There are three loops. One is a central city loop, one that completes the same central loop and heads north, while another one completes the same loop and heads south. It also connects to a central city station where it connects to the heavy commuter rail. In the last few decades, this system has found itself in the middle of the massive explosion of Miami’s core as it extended both north and south. It’s an elevated system that’s lightweight and is really cool to ride as it winds its way through all of the new skyscrapers.
I can imagine a similar system for Raleigh as well with a central loop and tentacles that reach into nearby areas that are best positioned to become urban walkable neighborhoods. One tentacle could run west through CV and along the Hillsborough corridor. Another could extend to the east along New Bern. Another could head north up Capital and be the catalyst to change the corridor’s development model as it gets re-imagined. Lastly, a tentacle could extend southward along S. Saunders/Lake Wheeler and hook into Centennial Campus.
I know that this is all a pipe dream, but this is how I see it.


I was in Miami last week for the Miami Marathon. I didn’t get a chance to ride the MetroMover, but thought it was pretty cool. Before race there was practical grid lock on the streets, but the MetroMover kept right on moving, delivering runners right to the starting line. I wish I had taken that mode rather than driving in and overpaying to park when I got stuck in traffic.

My question is this… how is the MetroMover that much different than a monorail? I get that the “trains” are more like minibuses rather than true trains, but it is elevated so there is no conflict with street level traffic. (My big selling point for a monorail.) What good is mass transit if you are still stuck in traffic? If Mass transit can leave the traffic headache behind, then I am sold, but if I am sitting on a bus that is still stuck in traffic, I’ll just drive.

My only complaint (from my VERY brief time in Miami) was that in the areas of downtown where the MetroMover was overhead of the street grid, it felt a little claustrophobic and dirty to me. Just my opinion, but I am sure they just used the space they had available to them.

One last thought… Miami is not a government city (IE state capital). IF Raleigh were to ever try to pull something like this off, would there be issues with building such a system over State owned roads rather than City owned roads/streets?


The metromover runs automated cars that are on wheels within a track, not on a rail. It’s driverless, lightweight and flexible because you can daisy-chain the cars to each other or let them run singularly. In that way, it’s a scalable solution.
The system was put in place in the 80s when downtown was dangerous and gritty. The system has taken a lot of abuse over the years and it’s slowly getting cleaned up as new developments adjacent to it make it more relevant. The Metromover now serves/connects superstar developments like Museum Park (Perez Art Museum & Frost Science Museum), Brickell City Center, and Miami World Center that’s under construction. BTW, Miami World Center is the nation’s second largest urban development under construction after Hudson Yards in NYC.
As for “under” a system, this is a really interesting design problem that affects anything that carries transportation overhead (including roadways). Miami is addressing this issue with its elevated freeways by creating an underline park. Think of it as an inverted Highline. That said, if a system is light enough, I think the key to them is how we address their stations. If the station can be co-located with a destination, then it can be better monitored an d detailed with relevant experiences from the moment one leaves it.


You could also take a more practical approach, too. What if a set of people mover tracks can be combined with street lights, other utilities (electricity/water/phone lines that’re easier to fix?), or even artwork (see the Capital Blvd. project), maybe this won’t be an issue.

People-movers seem like a relatively niche market that’s difficult to scale (even if the project ends up doing well), though, and its per-mile cost doesn’t seem much more expensive than BRT or light rail. I found this white paper that’s trying to advocate for systems like this across the U.S., but it sounds more appropriate for today’s North Hills or a more-ambitious Greensboro than Raleigh in the 2030s.

From the paper:

APM cost reductions will have little effect on the cost of civil infrastructure.
A 25 percent reduction in the system cost would typically reduce total project cost by less
than 8 percent. More significant cost savings may accrue from breakthroughs in material
production and construction techniques


I wonder if it’d be better to make a new forum topic for this? This seems like an idea we keep coming back to, in several topics.


Interestingly enough, Raleigh and Miami have almost identical populations, but Miami achieves it in less than 36 square miles of land. At nearly 13,000 ppl/m2, Miami is way more densely populated than Raleigh will ever be across its total land area. Frankly, the core of Miami is more densely populated than Raleigh could ever imagine being in any of our lifetimes and more. I think that this sort of lightweight system is perfect for the core of the city when it’s paired with a heavy commuter rail system that connects Raleigh to Durham. As for North Hills, I can imagine it being the last stop on a tentacle of such a system that reaches northward.
Let the burbs have BRT in the future, and let the more densely populated core, that contributes more tax revenues to the coffers, enjoy an appropriately scaled transit system that we can afford and will work.


Catching up on my DTRaleigh Community reading today!

I continue to be surprised by the apprehension surrounding the implementation of rapid transit options in Raleigh. Many great points have been made with examples from Charlotte, Atlanta, Miami, Denver, Dallas, etc. Looking at any of these locations, its clear that great transit systems are not created over night. And while transit, particularly rail transit can be great for encouraging development, the mere presence of a rail line does not suddenly make great neighborhoods, build skylines, or create opportunity for the people that need it.

We must continue to make smart investments, which takes time. Part of that is continuing to make our city more livable with complete and walkable neighborhoods and districts. RTP and Park Center needs to be a part of this conversation, which will require big interventions. The steady improvement to bus service and compatible land use as a foundation for rail makes a lot of sense.

We could do a lot more to better direct development in Raleigh’s high growth areas. It may be time to revisit the Growth Framework Map from the 2030 Comprehensive Plan (2009) and set up goals that correlate with the Wake Transit Plan (2012).


A really specific and wonky (but I swear it’s important) question…

Is the model of the Triangle’s population/transit forecast available? If so, where could I get my hands on it?

I have a gut feeling that it’s either super-outdated, or it’s based off of terribly wrong assumptions/simplifications. If we have better data, could we make a more waterproof argument in favor of smart investments (or at least a better way to message/market it to less transit-friendly people)?


I’m not sure that more growth to the high growth areas will have to be directed in the case of downtown. People are increasingly craving experiences in their daily lives, and these areas provide them what they are seeking. I think that the continued growth will come without specific direction, especially as more puzzle pieces are added to complete the picture of an “18 hour” community downtown. The time to prepare transit solutions for this future is now.


Totally agreed! Now…what are OUR transit solutions? Rhetorical question, I know…but I had to ask…Lol :blush: