Light rail: Duke hasn’t been the only roadblock to the project

Duke University’s decision not to sign a cooperative agreement may have derailed the Durham-Orange light-rail project, but it wasn’t the only roadblock the project has faced in the past few months — or years.

Light-rail construction, with recent changes to a key downtown Durham corridor, now could cost $2.7 billion. Interest on debt could add up to $900 million more, though that estimate is being revised.

Planning for a light-rail line in the Triangle actually started about 40 years ago. An earlier project was defeated in 1999. GoTriangle, the agency heading the effort, resumed talks with Duke University in 2000, documents show, but the project stalled for lack of funding.

In 2010, the current plan — moving people between UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill and Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham — gained traction after the state legislature let Wake, Durham and Orange counties levy a half-cent sales tax for transit projects. Durham and Orange voters approved the sales tax referendum, respectively, in 2011 and 2012.

Since 2012, GoTriangle has led multiple studies and meetings with local officials and the public, all leading to an April 30 deadline for submitting the project to the Federal Transit Administration. If approved, the federal government would pay roughly $1.23 billion, or half the project’s construction costs.

The state has agreed to pay $190 million, if the project meets a Nov. 30 deadline for having federal money. That process, in itself, has been fraught with pitfalls, with the state cutting its contribution from 25 percent of project costs to $500,000, then 10 percent and most recently just over 7 percent.

Durham and Orange counties, meanwhile, would pay the rest using sales tax, and car rental and registration fees, plus an expected $102.5 million in land and cash donations. About $88 million in donations still needs to be raised, yet another hurdle for light rail to cross.

Consultant convicted of fraud

In December, GoTriangle dismissed a light rail consultant after The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun reported that he had taken a plea deal on a fraud charge, and GoTriangle knew about it when they hired him as a subcontractor. Stephen Banta pleaded guilty to fraud related to thousands of dollars in personal travel, meals and alcohol while he was a transportation official in Arizona, according to The Arizona Republic. Banta received unsupervised probation and a fine.

“I think this is a non-issue, not related to any of the work he’s doing for us,” John Tallmadge, the interim light-rail project manager, said at the time. Banta’s consulting rate was $231.75 an hour.

Durham County Board of Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs, who serves on the GoTriangle Board of Trustees, said Banta was dropped because of a “public trust issue.” Banta had no direct access to funds, she said.

Transparency concerns

The controversy about Banta highlighted a concern among some that GoTriangle wasn’t being as transparent as it should have been.

Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee regularly asked GoTriangle for more information about project finances over the last six years, but often expressed frustration that his questions were not being answered.

Financial concerns prompted Orange County to get an independent analysis of GoTriangle’s plan in 2017. The resulting Davenport and Company report found Orange County at times would have “a very, very thin margin” of cash to spend on the project through 2062.

Durham County’s cash flow was projected to have a larger cash cushion, but the analysis did not include covering a $57.6 million shortfall when the state changed its share of funding or the $237 million needed to build a tunnel and bridges in downtown Durham.

Downtown tunnel

A GoTriangle proposal to close Blackwell Street to vehicle, and potentially pedestrian, traffic, was panned by downtown Durham stakeholders. Leaders of the Durham Performing Arts Center, American Tobacco Campus and Durham Bulls did not want the street closed at all, even if a platform crossed it.

The plan prompted Michael Goodmon, senior vice president of Capitol Broadcasting Co., and Brad Brinegar, chairman of the advertising agency McKinney, to resign from the GoTransit Partners, the group raising cash and land donations for the project.

A private meeting of downtown stakeholders resulted in a new plan that called for a tunnel under Pettigrew Street.

Even though the tunnel solved the street closure problem, DPAC general manager Bob Klaus criticized how GoTriangle had responded to his concerns. Neither Goodmon nor Brinegar returned to the fundraising group, although GoTriangle says Goodmon has pledged a donation to the project.

Duke and Erwin Road

Duke officials also cited concerns about transparency, and the university’s longtime opposition to running the light-rail line on Erwin Road, in defending its decision to drop out of the project.

Duke supports public transportation, said Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president of public affairs and government relations. He noted Duke’s $5 million-plus investment over the past five years in the Bull City Connector bus route and bus passes for students and employees. (Duke stopped funding the fare-free Bull City Connector in 2018; the city could end the route this year.)

Schoenfeld, in an email Monday, reiterated Duke’s support for a regional transit system that could include light rail connecting Durham, Orange and Wake counties. The planned route doesn’t go to Wake County, Raleigh-Durham International Airport or Research Triangle Park, but future bus and a Wake-Durham commuter rail system connections are proposed.

“What we can’t support is locating a electric rail line on or above Erwin Road 150 feet from buildings that provide vital medical care to patients from around the region,” Schoenfeld said. “The risk to instruments and medical procedures is too great, and Duke is not willing to compromise on patient safety.”

Duke made those concerns clear on many occasions, he said, including in Duke President Vincent Price’s November letter to GoTriangle and local officials. Duke didn’t stop the talks, because it was asked to stay at the table, he said.

More information about how electromagnetic radiation could affect medical devices wasn’t received from GoTriangle until Feb. 19, he added.

“The preliminary analysis conducted by our independent expert indicates that, in fact, the impact of EMI on medical devices and thus the risk to patient safety appears to be even greater than had been initially understood from earlier data provided by GoTriangle’s consultants,” Schoenfeld said.

Lawsuit, eminent domain

A rail operations and maintenance facility planned for southwest Durham needed a rezoning from the Durham City Council. Eminent domain was used to get some of the needed land.

Neighbors protested, citing concerns about lights, noise and safety, and a group of them has since filed a lawsuit to stop it. The lawsuit claims the council’s action was illegal spot zoning.

Even before Duke’s decision last week, Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton suggested GoTriangle use eminent domain for the land needed to run 17.7 mile light-rail line by the university’s medical center.

“How can the very economic trajectory of our region be determined by one wealthy, private landowner?” he asked. “Is this consistent with the moniker of being the most progressive city in the South?”

Former GoTriangle spokesman Matthew Clark told Orange County’s commissioners in February 2018 that taking private land is always difficult and would be GoTriangle’s last resort. GoTriangle and local officials have not responded to questions about whether eminent domain is even possible in the time remaining.

What’s next

On Monday, three Durham legislators urged Duke to change its mind, warning the university’s decision could fracture town-gown relations.

Duke’s decision — and the N.C. Railroad Company’s refusal to sign agreements until its concerns are resolved — will affect the FTA’s evaluation of the light-rail project’s benefits, risks and potential costs.

The evaluation will determine whether the light-rail project gets a federal grant and how much money GoTriangle would have to budget for unexpected expenses. The federal assessment has not been completed, FTA officials said Monday.

GoTriangle’s Board of Trustees was scheduled to meet Wednesday to talk about the light-rail project. On Monday night, Chapel Hill Town Council member Michael Parker said the meeting has been canceled.

Elected boards in Orange and Durham counties could still discuss the project this week.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.