- The Progressive Pulse - http://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org -

How lawmakers undermined Durham’s plan to get people out of their cars

601px-i-40-svg [1]

The next time you’re stuck in traffic on I-40 between Raleigh and Durham, you can blame, at least in part, the state legislature. (If you’re driving alone in a car, you also have to blame yourself.)

Even 16 years ago, Durham County government could read the tea leaves that forecast a traffic daymare on the main drag between the two major cities. So the county commissioners adopted a Commute Trip Reduction Ordinance, in hopes of reducing car traffic and its attendant pollution on I-40, NC 54 and US 15-501.

With the backing of the Chamber of Commerce, the ordinance required major employers [2], defined as those with 100 or more workers, to promote alternatives to solo driving, such as carpooling, mass transit, cycling and telecommuting. Companies paid an annual $200 fee for GoTriangle to run the program and they had to complete a yearly report — nothing too onerous. Compliance was about as tough as studying for an open-book test.

Sure, employers could have been fined up to $1,000 for failing to comply with the ordinance, but according to Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, Durham County never penalized anyone.

By 2010, the ordinance had been declared a major success. The program had enrolled 60 employers, such as Duke University and Self-Help Credit Union. Together, all of the companies represented 73,000 employees. Durham County had reduced the number of solo drivers to 77 percent in 2010 from 87 percent in 2005. The program had achieved its goals, so Durham Commissioners re-upped it for another 10 years [3].

And then, the legislature essentially stole the horsepower from Durham’s ordinance. In 2013, the conservative majority passed an expansive House Bill 74, [4] ostensibly to remove “unnecessary regulations.” In fact, the measure hamstrung local governments from passing certain laws. One of them singled out Durham: Section 10.1 (b) prohibited local governments from requiring employers to be responsible for “the mitigation of the impact” of their employees’ commute.

The program could be voluntary, which in horsepower terms, is like a Fiat racing a Ferrari. But local governments couldn’t threaten any company with a fine, however anemic, or any “negative consequences.” Like air pollution. And high blood pressure. And time wasted behind the wheel.

In 2015, the now-voluntary survey participation decreased from 82 employers to 16, although GoTriangle says nearly the same number of employees participated as in prior years, because of company mergers and other economic factors.

But 51,400 workers still commute from Wake County to Durham County  [5]each day. About 20,000 travel from Durham to Wake. [6] Even as regional ridership has increased by more than 250 percent since 1996, this summer Triangle Transit had to adjust its Durham to Raleigh timetables to leave more time for interstate traffic.

While we’re on the topic of transit, tomorrow the NC Justice Center hosts a Crucial Conversation about the Wake County transit referendum, which would add a half-penny to the sale tax to fund public transportation.(Register here [7]. Bonus points for walking, biking or taking the bus — not driving — to 711 Hillsborough Street.