FTA report warns against Durham-Orange Light Rail delay. GoTriangle asks Duke to negotiate

A draft federal risk report sent to GoTriangle last week delivered some good news — and some bad news — for the 18-mile Durham-Orange light-rail project.

GoTriangle “has been diligent” about tracking risks to the light-rail project, the Federal Transit Administration report said. It advised taking steps to address several lingering concerns.

It also advised GoTriangle to set the project’s budget to at least $2.5 billion to cover recent changes and rising construction costs. The cost estimate does not include up to $900 million in anticipated interest payments on debt.

But the FTA also stressed the importance of the project staying on schedule, a growing concern after Duke announced last week it will oppose efforts to run the rail line outside its medical center on Erwin Road.

“Importantly, the cost, schedule, and risk analyses in this report assume that no major delays occur in FTA or other approvals for D-O LRT funding ... that would materially impact the construction progress,” the draft report said. “Such scenarios are beyond the scope of the risk modeling in this report and would be cause for re-evaluation once these types of delays are quantifiable.”

There is no schedule for releasing a final report, FTA officials said in an email Monday.

GoTriangle received the draft report Feb. 26 — the day before Duke administrators told the transit agency they won’t sign critical agreements for the project.

In a letter, Duke noted concerns it said remain unresolved after 20 years of meetings, including running the line on Erwin Road, and how noise, vibrations and trains could disrupt emergency traffic and patient care. Duke President Vincent Price also noted the concerns in a November letter.

The FTA’s draft report does not address that development, which adds more risk to the project. Durham city officials have suggested using eminent domain to secure Duke’s land; it’s unclear whether there is enough time and money for a legal battle with Duke. GoTriangle’s Board of Trustees could talk about it next week.

Inviting Duke back

On Monday, GoTriangle CEO Jeff Mann and Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, the chair of the GoTriangle Board of Trustees, wrote Duke, asking the university to participate in mediation over the next four to six weeks to resolve Duke’s concerns.

GoTriangle also released Tuesday a copy of the memorandum of understanding that Duke Executive Vice President Tallman Trask signed in 2016, pledging to collaborate on the light-rail line’s planning, design and implementation.

Finley Golf Proposed Rendering.jpg
This Durham-Orange light-rail train would pass 19 stops, including this one on Hamilton Road near Finley Golf Course in Chapel Hill. The light-rail system would connect UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill with Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham, plus retail, office and residential areas along the way. GoTriangle Contributed

Price appointed Trask as Duke’s lead representative in light-rail negotiations in November. A GoTriangle report released last week said Duke staff have rarely attended planning meetings since 2016 and delayed providing important documents.

Duke’s decision not to sign a cooperative agreement with GoTriangle “creates significant challenges for the Light-Rail Project, effectively nullifying two decades of work.” Mann and Reckhow wrote in the letter to Price.

The letter also notes that Duke did not raise concerns about vibrations, utilities, electromagnetic interference, liability and Erwin Road during environmental studies completed years ago when it would have been appropriate to do so, they said.

Nonetheless, GoTriangle is committed to finding solutions, they said.

“We remain hopeful that we can resolve differences and address Duke’s concerns in such a manner that will allow this important infrastructure to move forward,” Mann and Reckhow said in the letter.

Railroad concerns

Meanwhile, N.C. Railroad Company officials also told GoTriangle last week that they will not lease right of way in the existing rail corridor through downtown Durham until engineering and other details are final. The FTA’s report noted that engineering plans were over 60 percent complete as of Dec. 31, and should be 90 percent complete by June.

The railroad agreements are one of the significant risks facing the light-rail line, the draft report said. Others include a higher rate of condemnations to secure land for the system, increasing third-party demands, and construction concerns, including unexpected soil contamination.

GoTriangle needs better construction contracts and “front-end documents,” the draft report said. GoTriangle also should assign more people “to build and sustain a more effective working relationship” with its partners and secure land needed for the project, it noted.

The project is “well defined” with the exception of pending design updates and the downtown Durham corridor, it said.

The issues with Duke and the railroad are among several hurdles that the light-rail project has faced over the last several years.

DPAC general manager Bob Klaus also has criticized how GoTriangle responded to his concerns about a plan to close Blackwell Street to cars. Downtown Durham stakeholders criticized the plan, and it was replaced in December with another plan to build a tunnel under Pettigrew Street.

The tunnel and other recent changes to the light-rail project have added $237 million to the cost, FTA officials said in the draft report.

Final score pending

The 18-mile light-rail line would connect UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill with Duke, downtown Durham and N.C. Central universities in Durham, among 19 proposed stops.

The draft report did not include the FTA’s final score for the project, which will be based on how complete the plans are, how much local money is dedicated to a project, and how it meets other criteria.

The project received an overall score of “medium” in July 2017, meeting the minimum score for a project to enter the engineering phase. Light-rail projects funded since 2010 have earned higher scores, including Charlotte’s LYNX Blue Line and Blue Line Extension projects, which rose from “medium” to “medium high” before getting federal money.

FTA officials do not comment publicly about proposed projects. The draft report gives GoTriangle feedback that can help improve the project application before it is submitted to the federal government.

GoTriangle has been working for over a year with an FTA-appointed contractor to complete the project’s design, schedule and costs, and confirm that state and local funding is available.

The next step is submitting a $1.23 billion grant application to the FTA by April 30, a state deadline for having all the project’s local and state money in place.

GoTriangle needs to have the federal funding in place by Nov. 30 to meet a second deadline for receiving $190 million in state money. The light-rail project cannot move forward without state and federal money, GoTriangle officials have said.

Durham and Orange counties — plus private and public donations — would cover the remainder of the light-rail costs using money from a half-cent sales tax, and car rental and registration fees. Durham is expected to pick up roughly $796 million for its share of the rail line; Orange County has capped its share at $149.5 million.

The counties also could be asked to cover a gap — at least temporarily — in private and public donations. GoTriangle’s nonprofit GoTransit Partners is expected to raise the full $102.5 million in land and cash donations over time; only $15 million has been raised so far.

The cost-sharing agreement also allocates each county’s share of an estimated $847 million to $908 million in interest on short- and long-term debt.

Related stories from Durham Herald Sun

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.