New Light Rail Will Serve North Carolina’s Research Triangle

Commuters will soon have a transportation option currently unavailable in a rapidly growing region of North Carolina known as the Research Triangle.

The GoTriangle Light-Rail Transit (LRT) system in Durham and Orange counties will connect universities, hospitals and other sports venues in the Research Triangle—which earned its name due to its proximity to major research centers at the University of North Carolina, Duke University and North Carolina State University.

Jim Ruddell“It's a rapidly growing community that is experiencing serious mobility challenges,” said Jim Ruddell, project manager for WSP USA. “While the North Carolina Department of Transportation [NCDOT] has been expanding the road network in the area, population growth continues to outstrip capacity.”

A joint venture of Gannett Fleming and WSP USA was selected earlier this year by GoTriangle as the construction management consultant for the Durham-Orange light-rail project. This will be the first light rail line for GoTriangle, the public transportation agency currently providing bus transit in the region.

The 18-mile LRT will include 18 stations and will connect neighborhoods to jobs, education and employment centers. It will provide a congestion-free alternative for commuters in the rapidly growing metropolitan area.

Pamela Townsend“This critical light rail transit project will create safer and more reliable mobility options to connect the surrounding communities and will bring continued economic growth to the growing Triangle region.” said Pam Townsend, WSP’s Southeast regional manager for transportation and infrastructure.

The Gannett Fleming/WSP joint venture will provide a wide range of services, including constructability reviews, estimating, contract packaging, design and specification reviews during phase one; and full construction management services during phase two.

The $2.5 billion project is targeted for completion in 2026.

Fore Sight

The current alignment plan for the GoTriangle LRT system starts at the UNC Medical Center and includes a station at the Dean Dome basketball arena. From there, the line enters Durham County and parallels Interstate 40 and State Route 15/501 toward downtown Durham.

The alignment includes service to Duke University, Duke Hospital and the Veterans Administration Hospital before connecting to the GoTriangle bus Transit Center before reaching the end of the line at North Carolina Central University.

“The new GoTriangle LRT will provide travel options that will benefit citizens in Durham and Orange counties by reducing dependence on automobiles for travel and enabling smart growth along its corridor,” Ruddell said.

One unusual aspect of the project will require modification of the UNC Finley Golf Course. “Part of our scope includes managing a construction contract to modify a fairway and tee box, cultivate appropriate vegetation and construct a screen to protect riders from errant golf balls,” Ruddell said.

The line includes over 10 miles of at-grade ballasted track—including about four miles on an elevated structure—and approximately 3.5 miles of at-grade embedded track. An end-to-end trip is expected to take 45 minutes.

A noteworthy technical aspect of the alignment will be the use of a 1500-volt system, as contrasted with the more common 750-volt system.

“The higher-voltage system significantly reduces the number of traction power substations, and provides a substantial cost savings to the project,” Ruddell said.

Although Ruddell described local funding for the project as “robust,” he added that securing state and federal financing remains an ongoing challenge.

“By applying professional construction management practices, WSP is assisting with ideas for cost shedding so that there are sufficient local funds to capture the FTA (Federal Transit Administration) match,” Ruddell said. “Our expertise in estimating, scheduling, utilities coordination and constructability reviews provides critical insights into the funding, cash flow and procurement strategies."

©IMAGE COURTESY OF GOTRIANGLE

The light-rail system between Durham and Orange counties will include 18 stations between the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and North Carolina Central University in Durham.

Vibrant Community

At the project level, GoTriangle has created a collaborative environment for its consultant teams, which has helped the project to move forward.

“Collaboration is occurring at multiple levels,” Ruddell said. “GoTriangle has been active in building alliances with an extensive list of partners and stakeholders, including elected officials, state and local agencies, universities, hospitals, Norfolk-Southern Railroad and the North Carolina Railroad Commission, countless utility owners and business and citizen groups.”

GoTriangle estimates that when it is in operation, the light rail will accommodate 26,000 trips per day, connecting three of North Carolina's top 10 employers—UNC Health Care, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University. By 2057, it could add $3.2 billion in property values and $1.4 billion in tax revenue, according GoTriangle projections.

“Seeing the vibrant community in the Triangle today, I cannot think of a region that would be better served by LRT,” Ruddell said. “With the educational, cultural, medical and business opportunities along this corridor, I believe that this system will be wildly popular and will drive growth in a way that promotes more livable and sustainable communities.”

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