Transit and the Future


By Laurie Paolicelli

Franklin Street and the Changing Face of Transportation.

Every year, millions of tourists visit the Research Triangle Park and the Orange County communities. They come for business, conferences, warm climate, cultural offerings, healthcare, and to relocate here permanently.

Many visitors ask about rail service or if there are faster, safer ways to navigate the Triangle’s roads. At the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, we give them the options that currently exist: buses and taxis, rideshare, rental cars, Triangle transit, and, in a pinch, a ride-on mower.

Visitor Centers don’t weigh-in on light rail, commuter rail, or rapid bus transit, but Orange County is asking its residents to do so.

Orange County Public Transportation and County transit service providers, Chapel Hill Transit and GoTriangle are seeking public input on proposed transit plan projects to be included in Orange County’s updated Transit Plan. This second phase of public engagement is focused on evaluating projects that can be funded with project transit tax revenues and prioritizing regional connections for future transit investments.

For more information about the Transit Plan Update, please visit the project website at

Commuter Rail is being considered in many Triangle counties; during this phase Orange County is not one of them.

What is being considered is a system that will:

  • Run up to 43 miles along North Carolina Railroad Company corridor.
  • Connect West Durham to Garner or Clayton.
  • Stop at downtown Raleigh, N.C. State, Cary, Morrisville, Research Triangle Park and downtown Durham
  • Carry an estimated 7,500 to 10,000 passengers a day.
  • Return $5 billion in GDP and 50,000 jobs over 20 years for every $1 billion invested, according to APTA.

“There are other possible segments including one that extends through Orange County (Hillsborough and Mebane), however, those segments have been determined to not be feasible for the initial phase,” says Brian Litchfield, Chapel Hill Transit Director. “The project is still being studied and at the end of the study the governing bodies for the counties/communities along the line will decide the best way to proceed.” Read more here:

Bus Rapid Transit.

We were curious though. How does commuter rail differ from light rail and how does bus rapid transit work?

Commuter rail systems are passenger trains that run on diesel-electric or electrically propelled engines that operate over existing railway tracks. Light rail systems are passenger trains powered by overhead electrical wires. Commuter rail systems make fewer stops than light rail systems and usually run through suburban areas and central cities during the standard commuting times for the average workday. Light rail systems operate in city streets and urban corridors throughout the day. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a high-quality bus-based transit system that delivers fast, comfortable, and cost-effective services at metro-level capacities. It does this through the provision of dedicated lanes, with busways and iconic stations typically aligned to the center of the road, off-board fare collection, and fast and frequent operations.

Because BRT contains features similar to a light rail or metro system, it is much more reliable, convenient and faster than regular bus services. With the right features, BRT is able to avoid the causes of delay that typically slow regular bus services, like being stuck in traffic and queuing to pay on board.

Regardless of the mode of transportation, visitors will continue to find their way to the Piedmont of North Carolina and especially, Orange County. Orange County is an oasis of art, food, music, sport, and higher education. It’s a hilly run of farms that’s as close to the beach as it is to the mountains, a home to the future (for instance, Research Triangle Park) and to the past (Hillsborough, let’s say). People will come. And who can blame them?

Everything is here.

Churton Street, Hillsborough.


Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.

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