Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas
2 min read September 2021 — The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle is anticipating strong and constant population growth over the next two decades, and its transit infrastructure will have to accommodate it accordingly. Charles Lattuca, CEO of GoTriangle, spoke with Invest: and shared the details of the region’s multilayered approach.
What challenges has GoTriangle experienced in the past year and how are you addressing them?
The Raleigh-Durham area is exploding in growth, and it’s going to accelerate once we get out of the pandemic. The challenge is figuring out how to best handle the growth that is coming. To ensure that the Triangle stays on all those Top 10 lists about great places to live, we have to continue building a solid transportation system that gives people more options than driving alone in cars on increasingly crowded roadways.
At the start of the pandemic, like most transit systems, GoTriangle suffered a significant loss of ridership. A lot of businesses shut down back in March or had their employees start working from home. We experienced a rapid decline in users of the transit system even as we kept transporting frontline workers to their essential jobs. Ridership has been slowly coming back over the past year. We are back up to about 55% to 60% of pre-COVID levels for our ridership during the weekday and 90% to 95% on the weekends. Fortunately, we still see a lot of sales tax being generated and that is part of the transit financing in the Triangle area. The three counties have a half-cent sales tax that is dedicated to transit. The sales tax has bounced back remarkably, and, in some areas, it has actually increased over the previous year.
How will the commuter rail and bus rapid transit (BRT) corridors work in the Triangle as planning efforts ramp up?
In the Triangle, each county has its own local transit provider, and GoTriangle is the regional system that runs across municipal lines and connects everybody together. The three counties are working together to create one unified regional transit network, and that network includes both commuter rail and BRT projects. Federal funding has been secured for BRT projects that belong to GoRaleigh in Wake County and Chapel Hill Transit in Orange County. These are projects that serve high-volume, high-capacity corridors where there is a lot of ridership. The BRT corridors are shorter than commuter rail. These BRT projects, for the most part, will operate buses in dedicated lanes for 60% to 70% of their routes. That is what makes bus rapid transit so desirable. In addition to dedicated lanes, BRT buses will have the ability to jump ahead of traffic at signal lights. This is called queue jumping. BRT will suit the needs of people who take shorter trips than commuter rail and even attract new riders because of its ability to bypass a significant portion of the congestion that is already on our roads.
The proposed commuter rail service between Clayton and Durham will bypass traffic congestion, too, and provide greater access to opportunity and a speedier commute to work across a wider geographic area. Providing new dedicated pathways for transit such as BRT lanes and commuter rail will offer travelers some attractive alternatives to driving as our region grows and traffic congestion worsens.
How do you ensure cohesion among all transit partners?
The Triangle’s transit management approach is one of close collaboration because we all realize that we sink or swim as a region together. Our operations teams meet weekly to ensure collective coordination. At GoTriangle, we have a large planning staff, and we lead a lot of the planning efforts for the regional transit network. We also oversee the GoDurham bus contract for the City of Durham and work closely with the two metropolitan planning organizations in the region. The MPOS play a critical part in deciding how federal and local transit tax dollars are spent in the region. The federal government requires that every area with more than 50,000 people have an MPO to ensure federal dollars are used to meet regional environmental and transportation goals.
What are GoTriangle’s main near-term goals or priorities?
For the next 12 to 18 months, the main priority for GoTriangle is finishing our commuter rail study, getting that in front of the counties where decision-makers can take a look at the data and decide whether they will go forward with the plan. So far, the data and community feedback make the case for commuter rail pretty compelling, and I think the project is going to be treated quite positively. Getting back to full service and getting ridership back to pre-COVID levels is another high priority. We’re looking forward to getting those customers back, making sure that we get them where they need to go safely. We will also be coordinating and assisting the local governments and the other transit providers with their plans for the future. Being the regional transit provider and leader for the Triangle area, we want to be the go-to resource for our transit partners and help them advance their plans.
We will continue capitalizing on our safety focus, which has been key going through this COVID experience. Our facilities and operational teams are second to none in terms of safety. We have received kudos and awards from the TSA and our local health departments. In 2020, GoTriangle was one of three transit agencies in the country to receive one of the highest TSA awards for safety.
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