Groups say Duke University impasse threatens to kill Durham-Orange light rail project

John Lee has been a Durham resident for almost 14 years and “religiously” rides the bus to work, appointments and leisurely trips across Durham, and to Orange and Wake counties.

The city needs the proposed Durham-Orange light-rail project to provide its less-wealthy residents with more opportunities, Lee said. The only thing holding up the project, he and over 100 others said Thursday is Duke University’s willingness to be a community partner.

The 17.7-mile line would connect UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill with Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham, and points in between.

“Light rail would mean for me an opportunity for better housing and employment,” Lee said. “I expect Duke as a great corporate citizen of Durham to support the light rail.”

Right now, Duke is putting the project — and the housing, jobs and economic development it could bring — in danger of failing, local coalitions and transit supporters said at Thursday’s rally outside the downtown Durham Station.

They called on Duke President Vincent Price to resolve the university’s and medical center’s concerns about the $3.3 billion project by the end of February. The project cost includes an estimated $852 million to $947 million in interest on short- and long-term debt, according to GoTriangle documents.

The rally was sponsored in part by Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods), the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit, Durham Congregations in Action and the People’s Alliance, and included more than a dozen current and former leaders from Durham and Orange counties.

Supporters also were encouraged to email Price and express their concerns. The project is at a crossroads, said Wib Gulley, a former Durham mayor and state senator. He and Nick Tennyson, a former mayor and former secretary of the N.C. Department of Transportation, have advocated for light rail as an investment in the city’s future and regional transportation.

Gulley, who spoke Thursday, said those who came to the rally represent the “rich diversity” that is Durham. He also acknowledged Duke’s concerns about the safety of its hospital, research buildings and patients, but said the community is “strong together and can do great things together.”

“This is not the only rail system in this country,” Gulley said. “It’s not the only rail system whose station is aligned or adjacent to hospitals in this country, and those communities, they have found a way to get the job done and work it out.”

Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, responded to the planned rally in an email Thursday afternoon.

“We are working with Go Triangle to address the university’s continuing concerns about aspects of the construction and operations of the light rail system that could compromise community health, research and patient safety at Duke,” he said.

Agreements deadline

GoTriangle officials have until April 30 to get 11 critical agreements signed, including the one with Duke, and submit an application for $1.23 billion to the Federal Transit Administration. The deadline must be met in order to get federal funding by Nov. 30 — a deadline set by the state for receiving $190 million in state money for the project.

Durham and Orange counties would pay the rest — and any interest on debt — through a dedicated half-cent sales tax and car rental and registration fees.

The project has gone through many changes since first being proposed more than 25 years ago. The latest version has undergone even more changes since engineering work started in 2017.

Some of the biggest changes, including a $90 million elevation of the light-rail tracks along Erwin Road by the Duke and VA medical centers and an $81 million plan to add a tunnel and two bridges to Pettigrew Street in downtown Durham, have arisen in the last six months.

This map released by GoTriangle on Friday shows where the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit line would run underground though downtown Durham and then run on elevated tracks on two proposed bridges. GoTriangle

FTA officials are still reviewing the tunnel and bridge system, which was designed as a way to avoid closing the Blackwell Street railroad crossing to cars and pedestrians between downtown Durham and the American Tobacco campus.

The proposed closure of the crossing prompted Michael Goodmon, senior vice president of Capitol Broadcasting Co., and Brad Brinegar, chairman of the advertising agency McKinney, to resign from the nonprofit GoTransit Partners fundraising board in November.

Although neither man has returned to the board, Capitol Broadcasting agreed in January to donate the required right-of-way for the light rail project, a spokesman said. He did not elaborate on the value of that donation, but said it would require the Blackwell Street crossing to be maintained for cars and pedestrians, as well as “other critical infrastructure issues related to the most recent proposal.”

GoTriangle must raise $102.5 million in private cash and land donations the project needs. Aside from the Blackwell Street right-of-way, the only other donations so far are $15 million in land from UNC and N.C. Central universities. A separate donation of federal land from the Durham VA Medical Center does not count toward the local donations needed.

Duke letter

Duke President Price cited the downtown crossing, before the tunnel was proposed, in a November letter to GoTriangle as a reason that Duke could not support the project’s design. Duke is also concerned about how the project will affects its medical and research facilities on Erwin Road.

Among the concerns, Price noted the concrete barriers and piers for the elevated track might “create difficult and perhaps dangerous conditions” for ambulances. The light-rail route also would pass just steps from Duke Hospital — the city’s only Level 1 trauma center — raising issues of how noise, vibrations and construction could affect those facilities, patients and a vital hospital utility line, Price said. A required 100-foot buffer around the Global Health Research Building also is critical, he said.

GoTriangle has made many adjustments to the plan to meet Duke’s concerns, said Carrboro Alderman Damon Seils, chairman of the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro MPO, a regional transportation planning board.

They shifted the light-rail track alignment, and then elevated it, he said. They moved a Duke station on Erwin Road, studied alternate routes, promised a safe pedestrian connection to the Durham VA and better access to Duke Hospital. Engineers are studying more changes right now, he said.

“We’ve made these changes at great expense,” Seils said. “Tens of millions of dollars of expense, not because these changes are necessary to operate an excellent light-rail system in the city, but because Duke asked for it.”

Price has appointed Duke Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III as the principal liaison for the project, with “sole authority to provide information and make decisions on all operational issues.”

However, neither side appears to have resolved Duke’s concerns. GoTriangle officials have referred questions to Schoenfeld, who responded in a Feb. 4 email to questions about the negotiations: “We’ll decline to comment.”

Duke also has declined requests since November for interviews with Price, Trask and other university officials.

More than a train

Light-rail supporters said the issue is about more than a train connecting three major employers in Durham and Orange counties. It’s also about affordable housing, jobs and economic development at the 19 planned stations, most of which will be in Durham.

The light-rail line will be different from another major transportation project — the Durham Freeway — that divided and devastated Durham’s affluent black community in the 1960s and ‘70s, said Christina Robinson, with Durham CAN.

“We are yet still trying to recover,” Robinson said. “This plan for light rail has a chance to reverse some of that negative impact by connecting people of color with opportunity. Opportunities like living wage jobs, connections to housing, jobs, entertainment, education and health care — that is, if Duke cooperates with the rest of Durham.”

Anthony Scott, chief executive officer with the Durham Housing Authority, noted that Durham’s public housing residents earn an average of $13,000 a year and pay an average rent of $238 a month. The unemployment rate among residents is 60 percent, he said.

Meanwhile, the authority is rebuilding its housing to be five times more dense, with a greater mix of incomes and commercial opportunities, Scott said. At least half of the households will be a 15-minute walk from a proposed light rail station, he said.

Project critics have said those things can be achieved without light rail, and that better bus routes and bus-rapid transit, which is a large part of Wake County’s transportation plan, would serve more people for less money. Others note the rapidly changing field of transportation, which could include more driverless cars and ride-sharing services, and the falling rates of ridership for existing transit.

A group of southwest Durham residents also has filed a lawsuit to stop the proposed light-rail maintenance yard planned for their neighborhood. The lawsuit claims the city council’s rezoning of land for the Farrington Road facility is illegal spot zoning, because it differs from the zoning of the mostly residential land around it.

Staff writer Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan contributed to this story.

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Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.