Triangle transit operators use federal funds as they look to improve and grow ridership

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Thursday, September 7, 2023
Triangle transit operators hope federal funds fuel growth
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As the population growth continues across the Triangle, finding ways to improve and enhance public transportation has taken on greater focus.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- On another day with temperatures nearing triple digits, Shannon Sloan was sitting on a bench at Durham Station, waiting for the bus to arrive.

"They're a godsend really," said Sloan.

On Thursday, she was moving from a shelter in Raleigh to a place of her own in Durham, a move which will make accessing her appointments at the Durham VA far easier.

"I was taking the bus from Raleigh to Durham, and that's like an hour any time I had a doctor's appointment So now I'm moving to Durham, 10 minutes from the VA, and the bus stop is right across the street from my house," said Sloan.

As the population growth continues across the Triangle, finding ways to improve and enhance public transportation has taken on greater focus.

"Before the pandemic, we were carrying about 6,500 riders a day, and now we're having about 5,500 trips a day. So we've come back a long way back (during the week). On the weekends, we're actually exceeding our pre-COVID numbers. So we're carrying probably 2,000 trips a day on the weekends where we're normally, we carry 1,200," said Charles Lattuca, CEO and President of GoTriangle.

GoTriangle is participating in a ceremony Friday, highlighting $900,000 in federal money that it is receiving to install accessibility improvements for passengers with disabilities, as well as bus bays, crosswalks, and pedestrian signals in Wake County.

"We've got more electric buses on the way. We've got improved communication systems, electric bus chargers, and that's just the start. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is going to provide even more funding for our transit services. Not just for GoTriangle, but for Raleigh, Durham and other transit partners," said Lattuca.

North Carolina is set to receive approximately $920 million during the next five years towards public transportation as a result of the law, which was signed into law in 2021.

"The more transit we can provide, the less expansion you have to do on your highways. The highways are going to get very congested over the next 20 years. Transit is going to remove some of those cars from the highways. And the more we can do that, the more we can maximize our current highway investments. The highway footprint is only so big," Lattuca said.

"Public transportation is critically important. Other (ways) to get people off of the highway. Not just for the purposes of improving the climate, but for giving people safer ways to get around, more efficient ways to get around, things that are more cost-effective" said Mitch Landrieu, Senior Advisor to President Biden.

Durham received $4.3 million as part of the Fiscal Year 2023 Appropriations Omnibus Bill to purchase two new zero-emissions, battery-electric GoDurham buses and to construct the R. Kelly Bryant Bridge Trail. As a state, North Carolina has been awarded more than $31 million toward "clean buses" -- $12.2 million through the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean School Bus Program, and $18.9 million for so-called clean transit bus service through a Department of Transportation Program.

"With the climate challenges that we have, which is right now an existential threat for us, we've got to get into a clean energy economy. So a state like North Carolina, especially in the area of the Triangle where there's this much research and development and innovation going on, you can move into the clean energy space really quickly. As we, as we think about building new highways, we want to build them smarter and better and faster. When we think about building other modes of transportation that don't require as much reliance on fossil fuels, we want to do that as well," Landrieu said.

Federal funds are viewed as crucial for the future of commuter rail in the Triangle, though the Federal Transit Administration signaled earlier this summer they would not provide support toward the project, instead pledging funds towards bus rapid transit. However, Lattuca still expressed confidence in the proposal, which would span from west Durham to Clayton.

"When we did our feasibility study for regional passenger rail, the numbers came in very high, and that was due to inflation and many other factors that we found during the study. The enthusiasm from people who live here and moved here, they want rail. And I think for anybody who is taking a trip more than 20 miles, rail is a key. But we also need to understand what our limitations are financially for the region. As we grow, we will have more resources available and our project will look better for federal funding in the future, as the region grows, as it densifies, as our land use allows for more density, will be a better option for federal funds probably next four or five years," said Lattuca.

Last year, the US Department of Transportation awarded a $58 million grant toward the planning and engineering design of a rail corridor between Raleigh and Richmond, stretching nearly 162 miles.

"You can't put it everywhere all the time, but there are strategic locations in the country. And this is actually one of them as we think about rail," Landrieu said.