Update on Transit

If Moody’s more pessimistic  assumptions are used, Orange County will not have enough transit tax revenue to cover commitments.

April 21 Update.  The updated transit plan adds nearly $2 billion for light but does not add needed funds for bus service or bus rapid transit. As a result, bus hours have been cut by over 20% and the , a planned Bus Rapid Transit system from Eubanks to Southern Village is not adequately funded. The plan adds nearly a billion dollars in debt and over $900 million in interest to build the project, and most recently even cost and debt to maintain the service.

The plan assumes that Orange County’s sales taxes will grow by 3-6% every year for the next 45 years. The county’s consultant has told the commissioners that the plan is very, very risky for Orange County.   If there’s an overage due to construction or interest rates, or if there’s a funding shortfall, then the county may need to rely on its general fund (which is used for schools and essential services) to make up the difference. The overall project costs about $300 million for Orange County.

See graphics Moodyspessimistic

April 20th Orange County work session.   The Commissioners discussed the controversial Orange County Transit Plan, which has been updated to include commuter rail service between Durham and Wake County. They were presented with new scenarios with favorable cash balances for Orange County – mostly because GoTriangle is planning to borrow even more money in another area and a private consortium has offered (but not committed) to provide additional funding – most of which has been added to Orange County’s side of the ledger. Read Tammy Grubb’s article here.

The commissioner were pleased to see numbers that worked, but they didn’t ask any questions about the revenue or financing assumptions that were problematic in the past.

There was some discussion about possible issues when GoTriangle reported that neither Durham or GoTriangle would agree to give Orange County an exit strategy in case of a short fall in revenue or a change in service that didn’t work for the county.  Commissioners are open to alternative contract language – “as long as it doesn’t interfere with the project moving forward”.

The risks haven’t really changed – but on paper it is a project that looks acceptable politically.  The commissioners still have not openly discussed likely scenarios where the sales taxes don’t grow as expected.  If you recall, the Board specifically requested on April 4th that the Consultant bring the Moody’s Pessimistic numbers. That has not happened.  The graph below illustrates this scenario  what will happen to Orange County cash reserves using these more conservative assumptions. Not good news for Orange County.

April 18th Orange County public hearing.  This commission discussion followed a jam packed public hearing (video link). Slightly more that half the public statements opposed the light rail.  (The County archive contains additional comments and the majority runs strongly opposed to the rail project.)  Many of the critical comments at the public hearing focused on the concern about the 3.2 billion dollar price tag. GoTriangle has had to resort to risky long term borrowing to try to make the project feasible. The counties will have to repay $1.25 billion of this debt with no state or federal help, including about $900 million in interest alone. These debt payments will sap our transit funds until 2062.

On April 27, the Orange County Commissioners will decide whether to commit to funding the Durham Orange Light Rail Transit (DOLRT). Here are the risks to this plan:

  • County taxpayers will be committed to a $935 Million dollar debt for 45 years to pay for the Durham Orange Light Rail.
  • Light Rail will serve few Orange County residents leaving working families, seniors and low-income communities without access to transportation.
  • Orange County bears the financial risk disproportionally on Orange County because there are few development opportunities for Orange County development and the plan consumes the entire transit tax for the next 40 years.
  • Downturns in the economy or misses in optimistic assumptions will have a deleterious effect on County funds for schools and affordable housing. 
  • Almost all of the dedicated 1/2 cent sales transit tax monies will go to paying for light rail and long-term and short-term debt so other needed public transit will not be implemented.

A majority voted for a special designated transit tax in 2012 because transit is important to Orange County residents. We want the best value for the tax money we are raising each year.

Read more updates here.

 Contact Commissioners: Send your email to this one address: ocbocc@orangecountync.gov

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What’s Next for American Legion Property?

CHALT campaigned tirelessly along with many community members for ensuring that at least a portion of this beautiful 36 acre tract of land would be a park.  See CHALT petition from Sept 2016. The Council approved the purchase of the land in a December 5th, 2016 resolution.

Members of the Chapel Hill community are invited to a charrette – a public design and planning activity — on Saturday, April 8, to share their ideas about the future use of the American Legion Post 6 property. The charrette will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Legion Hut at 1714 Legion Road. A report-out will be held at 3:30 p.m. to provide a recap of the day. The April 8 charrette is a first step in community dialogue about future land use for the property.


The charrette is the first step in a public engagement process initiated by the Chapel Hill Town Council, following its December 2016 decision to purchase the 36-acre American Legion property. Coulter Jewell Thames has been engaged as a consultant to gather public input, identify common themes, and create conceptual options for programming the site. These options will be further explored by a task force made up of Town Council, advisory board, and community representatives. A community report is expected in May, followed by a report to the Town Council later that month. Read more here.

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Energetic Discussions at Transit Forum

A crowd of about 125 people attended the Learn, Discuss, Take Action Forum at Extraordinary Ventures on March 14th.

See helpful transportation links here.

In Part I, Craig Benedict (Orange County Planning and Inspections Director) reviewed County demographics and transit needs, and Theo Letman (Orange County Transit Director) shared present and future routes for transit in the county, followed by a number of clarifying questions.

In Part II, Alex Cabanes (Smart Transit Future) and Bonnie Hauser  (Orange County Voice) compared the light rail, bus rapid transit and feeder bus service,  discussing costs, implementation, and ridership. In Part III,  Sheila Creth moderated a lively discussion. The video segments are in three sections following this program agenda. 

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Learn, Discuss, Take Action on Transit!

Important note:  Learn, Discuss, Take Action on Transit will be held at Extraordinary Ventures at 5:15 pm on Elliott Road opposite Whole Foods, (not the Town library as previously announced.)

When C.H.A.L.T. learned about the new 2.5 billion dollar pricetag for the light rail portion of GoTriangle’s transit plan, we decided it was time to dig in to the finances and reevaluate if the Orange County Bus Rail Investment Plan would reduce congestion and provide for our future needs. Public transportation is critical for our region and we need the best value from our investment!

This is the time to get informed. Join us on Tuesday, 5:30 pm, March 14th, at Extraordinary Ventures on Elliott Road.  Come early at 5:15 pm to see the exhibits and enjoy the refreshments. Orange County experts will explain our current transportation plans and citizen experts will evaluate our options. Because GoTriangle did not get plans and financial details to Orange County in time for a considered public review, major capital decisions are rushed and must be made by the end of April.

Get prepared to tell the Commissioners what you think at a public hearing to be held 7:00 pm, April 18th at the Richard Whitted Building on Tryon Street in Hillsborough.

This is why  your voice matters now! Learn about our transit options at this meeting.
March 14, 2017 • 5:15 pm – 7:30 pm   Exhibits open at 5:15 pm

Extraordinary Ventures, 200 S. Elliott Road, Chapel Hill

Why Orange County’s Transportation Plan is a Pressing Issue for Orange County Taxpayers
Since January we’ve found out that state funding cut backs have raised our local share for the Light Rail project from 25% to 40%.  We are exposed to several big risks that would drive our local costs higher.  At the March 8th County Commisison meeting, we learned that a large part of the borrowing required to fund the local cost share had not been disclosed by GoTriangle, driving the total project cost of the Light Rail alone to $3 billion or more. (See and hear video of Earl McKee’s questions below under transit links.)
What is Bus Rapid Transit?
A cost effective technology is available and Chapel Hill has proactively planned for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on the MLK corridor between Eubanks Rd near I-40 and Southern Village.  At a recent Chamber of Commerce event, Brian Litchfield, Director of Chapel Hill Transit, showed in this video how this BRT system would work in Chapel Hill.  Check it out. Joe Milazo of the Regional Transit Alliance pointed out that BRT could be installed on many corridors, such as 15-501 and 54, at a fraction of the cost of light rail. Learn what BRT on our major corridors could do for our transportation efficiency.
Links About Proposed Transit Plans

How to Contact the County Commissioners

After you’ve become informed, we encourage you to write letters to the County Commissioners and the local newspapers.


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Chapel Hill as a Technology Center?

Chapel Hill is home to one of the nation’s leading research universities, but has not, previously, been successful at retaining UNC start-ups or attracting light industrial companies.   We note two forward steps taken by the Town this week toward creating a climate that will attract technology jobs to Chapel Hill.  

First,  on the night of Monday Feb. 20, 2017, the Council considered a new light industrial zone — a first step in attracting technology, wet lab or light manufacturing firms, a goal for which we have long advocated.

Why does Chapel Hill need this zone?  UNC has spun out approximately 300 start-up companies over the last several decades. However, once these companies begin to prosper and emerge from on-campus ‘incubators’ they are forced to leave town because no suitable facilities are available. Until recently, there has been little coordination between the university and the local government.

We are pleased to see that Council is taking this step. Joan Guilkey representing CHALT shared observations about the scope and the likely technology business the zone is apt to attract, and those it would not attract. She made a number of suggestions on our behalf to improve the regulation and make it more straight forward. See CHALT recommendations.

The second noteworthy step this week is that Mayor Hemminger convened an Innovation Summit Breakfast on February 23rd attended by fifty Chapel Hill innovators and entrepreneurs, including UNC scientists and a number of young entrepreneurs who had successfully  ‘graduated’ from the UNC LAUNCH facility, real estate people, and a number of Town and University staff.

The main purpose of the meeting was to brainstorm about a proposed ‘Innovation Council’ to help support start-ups and growing companies in Chapel Hill.  Many agreed with the Mayor’s assessment the most successful models for fostering stronger innovation economies are led by the private sector as opposed to the local government or university. While UNC and the Town could be helpful, it is really the business community that needs to lead this effort, as happened in Ann Arbor, Boulder and in Durham at the highly successful American Underground.

Additional reading:

June 7th, 216,  High Tech Forum sponsored by C.H.A.L.T.
Is Chapel Hill Missing the Boat on High Tech?  This story explains why a new zone is needed.

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A New Concept for Transit


A better public transit concept for Orange County would replace expensive 2.5B current light rail with lower cost Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines (plus commuter rail through Hillsborough) with a network of frequent bus and ride-sharing services.

On February 13, CHALT and SMART TRANSIT presented to the Town Council a concept for serving our transit needs through a network of transit service that could cost half as much and serves a much wider population of county residents.

Please view the presentation here: Transit Plan Presentation (PDF)

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Packed Town Council Agenda Features Transit

County Bus and Rail Investment Plan.

Last December, GoTriangle planners asked the Orange County Commissioners for additional funds to cover a 40 million dollar shortfall. Then several weeks later, Gotriangle announced funds were not needed afterall, explaining that they will issue $935 million in new debt which will be paid using the 1/2 sales tax for another 50 years until 2062!  GoTriangle has made it clear that local counties will pay cost overruns. That could limit the growth of  bus service capacity to serve our growing county.

dolrrouteMap of proposed light rail project that serves only a tiny corner of Orange County. The developable  land served by the light rail line is almost all in Durham County. Light Rail will steer investment away from Orange County, hurting our tax base and

At the December County Commission meeting, GoTriangle promised Commissioners an up or down vote in April on the light rail portion of the plan whose total cost has escalated from 1.3 to 2.5 billion dollars. We wonder what happened to that promise. Given the new price tag and questions about the plan, we think citizens are due a public discussion and transparent decision in April as promised.  The more we study the GoTriangle Plan, the less there is to recommend it for Orange County residents trying to get around by public transit.

Also on the agenda is a GoTransit announcement for  upcoming design workshops on the station areas in Orange County. Those  Orange County station stops are:  UNC Hospitals, Mason Farm, Hamilton Road, and the Friday Center.  Two station stops in Durham County are Woodmont and Leigh Village.

Let’s think realistically about the prospects for economic growth and or affordable housing at each of these stops? UNC Hospitals, Mason Farm, and Friday Center proposed stations are all located on University land which limits taxable growth and are not located close to residential housing.  Hamilton Road offers little redevelopment potential as it was recently redeveloped.  Where are the much touted economic benefits?

Other key agenda items include:
– Report on OWASA water outage
– Transportation and Energy Efficiency Petitions
Announcement of Design Workshops for Light Rail project
Update on Orange County Bus and Rail Investment Plan
Retirement Residences, Estes Drive

Here is the entire Council agenda. (click on link)

It’s Time to Stop, Look and Listen on Light Rail Project

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Chinese New Year!

A growing community in Chapel Hill!

The Jan. 28 festival will bring dragon dances, art, music and food to University Place in celebration of Chapel Hill’s diverse cultures.
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Elkin Hills Conservation District Approved by Council

Monday night, Jan 23rd,  was an exciting night for the Elkin Hills neighborhood.  After 6 years of hard work the Town Council voted to create a Neighborhood Conservation District (NCD) in Elkin Hills, one of Chapel Hill’s oldest neighborhoods.

Elkin Hills is one of the last relatively affordable neighborhoods near UNC. It consists almost entirely of small, single-family houses, built in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when a typical American house was less than 1,000 square feet. Many houses in Elkin Hills are even smaller, at 800 square feet, but most include modest front yards and backyards that give residents a feeling of spaciousness. Elkin Hills is a modest, pleasant, leafy place to live. The NCD will allow the neighborhood to retain its current character as a quiet, safe and walkable area with plentiful vegetation and birds.

Part of the neighborhood’s appeal, in addition to its location within walking and biking distance of downtown Chapel Hill, is that the mix of small to mid-size houses attracts a diverse population of owners and renters that include families with children, senior citizens, students, UNC faculty, single people and couples of all ages.

Several years ago the neighbors began meeting to discuss their concern that future development of Carolina North, along with the rapid pace of town-wide development, would destroy the peaceful character and affordability of Elkin Hills. The Council vote represents the culmination of countless meetings and discussions with Elkin Hills residents and town staff. The town manager is recommending that the council create the NCD, but the council needs to hear from all citizens that they wish to protect what makes Chapel Hill special.

Chapel Hill is under tremendous pressure to urbanize. Some people believe that replacing single-family houses with duplexes and multi-family units will result in more affordable housing for everyone. But does this argument make sense? Development and redevelopment inevitably come with higher per-unit costs, as builders seek to maximize their return on investment.

The NCD is a tool for preserving moderate-priced housing. Preserving existing moderate-priced housing is always cheaper than trying to build new affordable housing. It’s impressive that neighbors have worked together 6 years and come up with a result that has required substantial compromises.

It’s important for Council members to respect the long process and the result of their work.  Adding duplexes would not make this neighborhood more affordable as new construction is more expensive.  But it also would undercut their work.

Finally, approving the Elkin Hills, NCD as your Planning Commission has recommended, will help to preserve one of Chapel Hill’s few remaining neighborhoods of reasonably priced single family homes and thus will promote our town goal of providing “a place for everyone.”

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Wishing you Happy Holidays and Looking Back at 2016

                                             Carolina Inn – Chapel Hill’s Christmas Centerpiece

Happy Holidays to our family of supporters and all those who want to make Chapel Hill an even better place to live.  This Our Town website is chock full of interesting local news, articles, and opinion about our home town, Chapel Hill.   Learn about the goals of Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT) by reading our past newsletters, blog posts, or by attending our educational events.

CHALT advocates for a livable Chapel Hill by educating and promoting a future that will honor and protect Chapel Hill’s small town character, and our longstanding values of inclusion, environmental stewardship and education. Detailed mission and goals can be found here.

  A Look Back at 2016……

The New Mayor and Council

The election of Pam Hemminger as Mayor of Chapel Hill has brought practical economic policies and a kinder gentler tone to Town governance.  Many citizens feel more welcome at Council meetings.  Petitions are now handled expeditiously instead of lost in an abyss, and upcoming public hearings are listed on a town webpage. The Mayor initiated a Food for the Summer progam that was an enormous success. Her energy and boundless interest in all aspects of the Town are astounding.

The election of CHALT – endorsed Council members Jessica Andersen and Nancy Oates has meant that citizens whose views were not previously represented on the Council, now have a voice.  Nancy and Jessica’s  presence has sharpened the Council’s oversight role of the management of the town by their insightful questioning of Council direction and town policies. We appreciate their service!

American Legion Sale: a Big Win for the Town! 

We celebrate the Town Council’s new support for a more enlightened use of the American Legion property, rather than the unimaginative and fiscally draining luxury apartments previously proposed. The sale of this land to the town means the Town will add an additional park with other opportunities that will benefit everyone.  Kudos to the entire Town Council and especially to Mayor Hemminger for leading the negotiations!  We look forward to having public participation in the strategic planning process to create our newest park.

Sancar Turkish Cultural Center

On November 21, The Town Council unanimously approved a local Nobel laureate’s plan to create a Turkish cultural center on East Franklin Street. The Council approved a special use permit for 1609 E. Franklin St, formerly the site of a contentious hotel proposal that was not approved.

Named for UNC scientists Aziz and Gwen Sancar, the center will feature net-zero energy buildings, which means that the roof-mounted solar energy systems will produce sufficient energy to offset any energy taken from the electrical grid to run the buildings’ energy systems.  This building design will set the standard for future sustainable development in Chapel Hill.

Transportation Planning Upgrades

After years of thinking and talking about it, it appears the Town is finally on track to improve transportation planning by implementing a traffic model for Ephesus Fordham that can be utilized for the entire town. In addition, CHALT’s Fred Lampe petitioned the Transit Partners to evaluate electric buses who requested that Chapel Hill Transit hire a consultant to study how much an electric bus costs over the useful lifetime of the vehicle.

Ephesus Fordham District (E-F)

We know that many Town Council members agree with us that the Form Based Code (FBC) that governs the Ephesus Fordham District needs to be fixed.  The zone encompasses nearly 200 acres and was intended as an initiative to spur more vibrant and interesting growth. Most agree that the FBC did not achieve these intentions and that progress toward repairing this new zone has been too slow. In June 2016, the Town Council made an amendment requiring  a designed break or pass through in the otherwise monolithic building form, but until the remaining problems with the FBC are fixed, developers are free to propose buildings that meet but few restrictions.

Consultants hired. In addition to making modest design changes to the FBC, the Council directed the Town Manager to hire a number of consultants to address “walkability”, transportation and design guideline elements that were not included in the original FBC approved in May of 2014. See town webpage of scheduled code improvements.

New zone replaces Town ordinances.  It is worth remembering that in approving the FBC, the Town Council abandoned some of the finest aspects of our Land Use Management Ordinance, specifically height restrictions, setbacks, and buffers, as well as requirements for affordable housing, and stormwater management.  The resulting projects so far, show what happens when public hearings are removed from the review process. Few people appreciate the monstrous new high rise luxury apartments on South Elliott Road that have eliminated the large trees we previously enjoyed along the road and those along the greenway bordering Booker Creek. The one story buildings in Rams Plaza are not objectionable (they could have been 2- 3 stories)  but the FBC failed to solve the entry and exit problems. And there is general concern about building large new buildings in what was formerly the Resource Conservation District in the flood plain.

Touted transportation improvements. The jury is out as to whether the highly touted Ephesus Rd – 15-501 intersection improvements or the planned extension of Elliott Rd will actually relieve traffic congestion and be worth the taxpayer contribution.

Current E-F strategy may not be working.  Everyone is concerned about the RAM proposal for large new monolithic buildings to be built in the Resource Conservation District and the flood plain from Elliott along Fordham Blvd which could be approved 45 days after the application is submitted. That proposal conflicts with the Town’s own proposal to build a stormwater storage pond there that would also create needed green space and park space. As is the case for all potential projects in the Ephesus Fordham District, the Town Manager has exclusive decision-making authority, since the FBC requires no public hearings.  The only other oversight allowed by the FBC is comment by the Community Design Commission on building facades.

The Consultants’ work is not yet complete but progress is not encouraging.  The walkability recommendations recently presented to the Council ignored the public pleas for green spaces, and safe biking and walking, and instead promoted changes the land owners preferred.

Perhaps more worrisome, while the Town Council professes commitment to fixing the FBC, they do not appear in a hurry to do so before more bad projects are approved.  See Chapel Hill news story about more apartments on 15-501 and Elliott built in a low lying flood zone. We are losing faith that the FBC can be fixed and wonder whether moving back to the previous rules for approving proposals would not be a better approach.

Light Rail Price Tag Out of Sight 

Orange County’s transportation plan includes a robust bus service to outlying areas, bus rapid transit, and light rail.  The immediate funding problem will come to a head in April when the County Commissioners will be asked to pay the extra costs for the light rail price tag which has gone through the roof due to the diminishing chances of state funding. GoTriangle is looking to the local counties (Durham ad Orange Counties) to make up the difference to the tune of 250 million dollars and more.

CHALT is concerned that the price will preclude the development of the more flexible portions of the plan as well as impact County responsibilities for schools and social services.  We believe that the extraordinary costs of the light rail proposed plan makes this a good time for Orange County Commissioners to reevaluate the County’s participation in a plan that does not appear to benefit anyone but UNC Health Care.

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