We’ve gotten a lot of questions about why light rail is the right investment in transit for commuting between Durham and Chapel Hill. Below is some information about what transportation planners consider when choosing transportation investments.

Why Light Rail?

The light rail project is an important part of Durham and Orange counties’ voter approved, long range, Bus and Rail Improvement Plan (often referred to as the BRIP).

The Durham-Orange corridor is already one of the busiest transit corridors in the Triangle, and existing bus service is nearing capacity. Chapel Hill Transit and GoTriangle combined send a bus to UNC Hospitals every 42 seconds during peak rush hour. Bus routes that currently service the D-O LRT corridor alone carry an average of 9,700 passengers every weekday. Overall, Chapel Hill Transit, GoDurham, and GoTriangle’s services within Durham and Orange counties carry 71,300 passengers per weekday.

Light rail was identified as the best transit solution to meet future travel needs in the Durham-Orange corridor following years of detailed study, extensive public outreach, voter-approved referendums in both counties along with a series of approvals from Durham and Orange Boards of County Commissioners and the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization (DCHC). In February 2016, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) approved an environmental Record of Decision for the light rail project based on thorough project study and analysis. FTA approved an Amended Record of Decision in December of 2016 to include North Carolina Central University on the light rail project.

The population in the Durham-Orange corridor is projected to double over the next 25 years and the highest expected travel intensity (number of trips per acre) in the Triangle region is predominately located in this corridor. Light rail provides a travel alternative to congestion without adding vehicles to the roadways. With the dedicated, rail-only guideway, light rail gives transit users a more predictable travel time in dense corridors than traveling by buses in traffic or bus rapid transit systems that mix with traffic on at least part of the route.

Other technologies, including bus rapid transit (BRT), were considered and studied for the corridor before Durham and Orange counties finally selected light rail as the best solution to meet their specific corridor needs for more reliable travel times and better connectivity balanced with geographical challenges and minimizing environmental impacts.

Where Else Can I Find Light Rail That Works?

While light rail is new to Durham and Orange counties, it has been successfully implemented in many other places including Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon and Charlotte, North Carolina. Other regions that chose light rail over enhanced bus systems did so as a way to directly connect multiple key point sources like hospitals, employment centers, and education centers in densely traveled areas where a high volume of transit already existed. Those models were also carefully considered as Durham and Orange counties studied the best possible solution to connect UNC and UNC Hospitals, Duke University and Hospital, the Durham VA Medical Center, North Carolina Central University and numerous employment centers in between.

Why Does Bus Rapid Transit and Commuter Rail Make Sense for Wake County?

Wake County’s Transit Plan consists of bus rapid transit and commuter rail in several corridors because it serves a wider, less dense area with fewer existing buses on the roads today, compared to the Durham-Orange corridor. Just as in Durham and Orange, Wake county planners carefully chose a technology to best meet specific corridor needs, while considering how those systems would connect regionally to other modes of transportation.

How Does Light Rail Fit into the Regional Transit System?

While each county’s plans identified various technologies to meet the specific needs for their unique corridors, many peer regions in the United States have thriving transit systems that use multiple modes of transit that match the performance characteristics of individual transit technologies to travel patterns in specific corridors. Both the Seattle-Tacoma and Minneapolis-St. Paul regions have light rail, commuter rail, bus rapid transit, and conventional bus services supporting metro regions with two central business districts like Raleigh and Durham. Within the Triangle region, the goal is to create a more robust and interconnected regional transit system to better serve all residents of Durham, Orange and Wake counties. The current plans include comprehensive improvements to existing service, while expanding transit options.

Can the D-O LRT Project become a BRT Project?

The current Federal Transit Administration approved Record of Decision for the project applies only to light rail, and cannot be substituted immediately for another technology, like bus rapid transit. The planning, design, federal environmental approval, and funding process would all have to start from the beginning if the local transportation planning organization decision is made to pursue bus rapid transit or another mode instead of light rail in the corridor. In addition, the federal share (50%) of the approximately $40 million spent during the D-O LRT Project Development would be forfeited.

Bus rapid transit does not meet the existing purpose and need statement in the federally approved environmental document. With the current density in the 17.7-mile corridor, the number of large employers along the line, the limited opportunity to expand roads and the existing volume of buses nearing capacity, it would be difficult to provide the same level of service through BRT. It would take significantly more buses with greater frequency to serve the same number of passengers as light rail in this area, greatly increasing the impacts on bike, pedestrian, and car traffic.

icon for light rail

Technology Profile:
Light Rail

Light Rail systems provide a high-quality transit service. Because of their high capacity, they are best suited for regions with dense, transit-supportive land uses that already have significant transit service and ridership.


  • •   Exclusive Guideway
    Separated from cars, other private vehicles and pedestrians.
  • •   Congestion-Free
    Light rail vehicles travel in an exclusive guideway, and thus are not impeded by automobiles or other private vehicles. They are also given priority at traffic signals.
  • •   Capacity
    Each individual light-rail car can hold about 180 passengers, compared to a standard bus which holds about 50 passengers and an articulated bus which holds about 80 passengers.
  • •   Reliable
    Because they travel in an exclusive guideway, LRT systems provide consistent trip time that is unaffected by traffic congestion on parallel roads.
  • •   High Demand
    LRT systems encourage more intensive development of property near LRT stations, driving additional demand for transit service.
  • •   Permanent
    Property owners along the alignment can confidently invest in dense, sustainable mixed-use development that takes advantage of the high-quality transit service provided by the light rail, because the service will likely be there into the foreseeable future.
  • •   Requires Transit-Supportive Policies
    Light rail is best suited to serve places which have implemented and are incorporating transit-supportive transportation and land use policies (e.g. limiting or charging for parking, subsidizing the cost of transit, etc.).
  • •   Efficient Operating Costs
    LRT systems have lower operating costs per passenger mile where transit demand is higher.
  • •   Investment
    LRT helps to add economic output in station areas by encouraging development and replacing nonproductive uses such as parking with additional commercial, residential, retail and office development.

icon of a bus

Technology Profile: Bus Rapid Transit Service

BRT systems vary widely from one another. Some include dedicated guideway for exclusive use by BRT vehicles, some include bus-only lanes marked only by paint and signage and some run entirely in mixed traffic. In general, while BRT systems with more dedicated guideway and signal priority are closer in performance or light-rail systems, they also cost significantly more than BRT systems that run in mixed traffic with limited signal priority.


  • •   Flexible
    Whether running in mixed traffic or in dedicated guideway, BRT systems can accommodate buses that diverge away from the BRT alignment for portions of their trip.
  • •   Capacity
    The capacity of these buses is limited 50 people (conventional bus) or 80 people (articulated bus).
  • •   Lower cost
    In areas of lower transit demand, where traffic does not significantly delay buses, partially implemented BRT strategies without dedicated-lanes may still upgrade transit service despite not providing the speed and performance of fully dedicated-lane BRT or LRT.
  • •   Lower reliability
    BRT systems become less reliable as they incorporate more mixed-traffic segments. Most American BRT systems run for significant periods of time in mixed traffic.
  • •   Most efficient operating costs with lower transit demand
    BRT systems have lower operating costs per passenger mile where transit demand is low.

Orange County Trip Intensity

Transit Technology Performance Comparison