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Congressmen urge Duke to act before time runs out for Durham-Orange light rail

Leaders and residents discuss Durham & Orange Counties’ light rail project

Leaders and residents of Durham and Orange Counties share why their community light rail project is so important for the future of innovation, environmental vitality, and economic opportunities in the region.
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Leaders and residents of Durham and Orange Counties share why their community light rail project is so important for the future of innovation, environmental vitality, and economic opportunities in the region.

Federal lawmakers sent a letter to Duke University’s president Friday to remind him that a pending land decision could “make or break” the Durham-Orange light-rail project.

Local elected officials will follow up Tuesday with a visit to Duke President Vincent Price. Durham County Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs said she hopes the meeting results in a letter of support from Duke for right-of-way donations.

The $2.47 billion Durham-Orange light-rail line would run 17.7 miles from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham. Several of the 19 proposed stations would serve Duke, its hospital and medical facilities.

“I’m confident that we will be able to address their concerns as best we can, but at the end of the day, this is the most important project for the future of Durham, our region and also for the state, and our futures are intertwined,” Jacobs said. “We have tremendous growth coming to our area, and what we hear from experts is that what we’re lacking is a transit system.”

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Duke President Vincent Price Chris Hildreth Duke Photography

Federal Transit Administration officials will be in town Nov. 27 to review the project’s finances and details. The project could receive a final score early next year, around the time GoTriangle submits the final application for $1.2 billion in federal dollars.

Efforts to reach Duke officials for comment Monday were unsuccessful. A Board of Trustees meeting Nov. 30 will be the university’s last chance to commit land for the project before a Dec. 31 deadline, according to a letter from U.S. Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield, Democrats representing Orange and Durham counties.

Delaying the light-rail application is not an option, they said.

“There are currently more than 75 projects nationwide at various stages in the Capital Investment Grants program, and failing to advance through the pipeline on schedule can be fatal for a project given the limited federal funding available,” they said. “Simply put, without an agreement in place by the end of the year, there is a very real chance that a regional light rail system will not be built.”

Regional transit map.jpg
A map shows how the Durham-Orange light rail, the Durham-Wake commuter rail, and Chapel Hill and Wake County bus-rapid transit projects would link together to form a regional transit network. John Hodges-Copple Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization

Light rail deadlines

GoTriangle must secure the project’s local and federal money by November 2019 to meet the deadline for $190 million in state funding.

Duke is one of several private and public partners being asked to contribute over $102 million in land and cash to the project. UNC and NCCU donated 25 parcels — worth $14.5 million — last month. The Durham VA Medical Center also will contribute land to the project, interim project manager John Tallmadge has said.

Duke’s anticipated contribution could be worth at least $16.5 million, GoTriangle General Manager Jeff Mann said Monday. Private and developer money would make up the rest. Jacobs noted “a tremendous amount” of private-sector interest in station naming rights.

Durham and Orange counties are paying the local costs with proceeds from a half-cent sales tax and car rental and registration fees. Durham County would pay $796 million and Orange County would pay $149.5 million toward construction, plus an estimated $847 million to $908 million in interest on short- and long-term loans.

Durham County has agreed to pay 81.5 percent of the interest payments; Orange County would pay 18.5 percent.

Erwin Road changes

The project has major implications for the region’s transit and economic future, Jacobs said. It also offers big benefits to Duke students, employees and visitors.

Jacobs noted that she, Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow and Durham Mayor Steve Schewel will emphasize those benefits to Duke leaders Tuesday. There is no viable alternative to Erwin Road, she and others said.

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A drawing shows how the Durham-Orange light-rail tracks could be laid along Erwin Road near the Durham VA Medical Center and Duke University Medical Center. Inset B shows the previous plan for the tracks and Erwin Road station; Inset A shows the revised plan. GoTriangle Contributed

GoTriangle, Duke University Medical Center, Durham VA Medical Center and others have worked for a few years to navigate the busy Erwin Road corridor. Several small changes were sent to Duke in the last month, Reckhow said.

A roughly $90 million elevated track was added from roughly LaSalle Street to the Ninth Street Station in an attempt to avoid conflicts with major utility lines and emergency access to the hospitals. A portion of the Erwin Road corridor also was realigned to protect a tree buffer between Towerview Drive and Cameron Boulevard.

Those changes were made within the project’s existing budget by reducing costs for stations, parking and amenities, officials said. Local officials hope they are honing in on a final plan, Reckhow said.

“I think this has been a healthy process in the sense that there’s a good give and take, as I understand it, by the staff at GoTriangle and the staff at Duke, and some high-level meetings,” Reckhow said. “Hopefully, this one — since we are getting close to our deadline — will be productive and we’ll be coming together and, if not solving all issues, be very close.”

Setbacks and good news

The project already has overcome several setbacks, including a steep cut in expected state funding, Price and Butterfield noted.

“But each time, the Durham community and its elected leaders has rallied around it to preserve a viable path forward,” they said. “It would be truly regrettable if Duke’s concerns prevented the DOLRT from proceeding to completion.”

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Meanwhile, there is good news at the federal level, Reckhow said, including a funding increase this year for rail projects and the Democratic Party’s recent gains in the U.S. House.

Democratic control puts Price, the ranking member of the House Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, in the position to become chairman of the subcommittee that oversees federal transportation and housing funding.

Despite the Trump administration’s efforts to cut transportation funding, Mann also noted continued bipartisan support for light-rail projects. There is no reason to think the funding process will change, he said.

Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb

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