Duke rejects Erwin Road for light rail. Negotiation with GoTriangle off the table.

Durham community calls for Duke to resolve concerns with Durham-Orange light rail project

During a rally Thursday, Feb. 7, at the Durham Station, representatives from many community groups called upon Duke University to resolve concerns with GoTriangle and approve the land donation to the Durham-Orange light rail project.
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During a rally Thursday, Feb. 7, at the Durham Station, representatives from many community groups called upon Duke University to resolve concerns with GoTriangle and approve the land donation to the Durham-Orange light rail project.

Duke University has rejected further negotiations with GoTriangle for a Durham-Orange light-rail route running past its research and medical buildings on Erwin Road.

The 18-mile light-rail line “poses significant and unacceptable risks to the safety of the nearly 1.5 million patients who receive care at our hospital and clinics each year, and the future viability of health care and research at Duke,” Duke President Vincent Price, Chancellor for Health Affairs A. Eugene Washington and Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III wrote Thursday in a letter to GoTriangle.

The letter, addressed to Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, chair of the GoTriangle Board of Trustees, and GoTriangle general manager Jeff Mann, said the risk of light rail to the university’s medical and research facilities is too great.

“GoTriangle has created a set of compromises that Duke is simply unwilling to accept,” the men said in the letter. “These circumstances, based on facts that we have no reason to believe will change with further review or mediation, will jeopardize community health, public safety and the future viability of our enterprise.“

Duke’s letter was sent in response to a letter Reckhow and Mann sent Monday to Duke officials, asking them to spend another six to eight weeks trying to work out issues, including the potential effect of electromagnetic interference and vibrations, critical utilities, patient safety and emergency access to the hospital.

GoTriangle spokesman Mike Charbonneau issued a short response to Duke’s letter on Thursday evening.

“GoTriangle has received a response letter from Duke University this evening and our staff will carefully review it,” he said. “The GoTriangle Board of Trustees will consider and discuss this new information as part of its work session Tuesday March 12.”

LRT station photo1
A GoTriangle illustration of a Durham-Orange Light Rail stop. GoTriangle Contributed

Duke also released a report received Tuesday from Vitatech Electromagnetics, which studied the light-rail project and how its magnetic and electric fields might affect Duke equipment in buildings near the planned rail line.

The detailed report concludes that the light-rail alignment could affect electromagnetically sensitive equipment, including ion-beam electron microscopes, and MRI and nuclear-magnetic-resonance imaging machines, in 22 different research and medical buildings on Duke’s campus.

The report also recommended an additional study to “define the ambient magnetic and electric field environment within critical research and clinical rooms.”

Duke’s land and collaboration are critical to the project’s pending application April 30 to the Federal Transit Administration for a $1.23 billion federal grant. The project is expected to cost roughly $2.5 billion to build, plus up to roughly $900 million in interest on short- and long-term debt.

The project needs an answer from the FTA by Nov. 30 in order to get another $190 million in state funding. Durham and Orange counties are negotiating a new cost-sharing agreement for how to split costs added in the last year, including a $57.6 million gap in anticipated state funding that Durham has agreed to pay.

Durham also could be asked to pick up another $237 million in funding needed to cover changes in the plan, including a tunnel under Pettigrew Street in downtown Durham. Orange County commissioners have capped their county’s share of the project costs at $149.5 million, plus interest.

The Duke letter also addressed a 2016 memorandum of understanding that GoTriangle released in an attempt to show Duke had agreed to cooperate with the light-rail project planning. That memorandum followed a GoTriangle report released last month that said Duke staff have rarely attended planning meetings since 2016 and delayed providing important documents.

Duke entered into that 2016 process “in good faith,” Duke officials said in Thursday’s letter, but “additional analysis and information” confirmed its concerns.

“Unfortunately, Duke’s concerns and requests for consideration of alternate routes — which have been stated in almost identical form since 1999 — were ignored, minimized, or redirected, leading to President Price’s November 19, 2018 letter, which indicated that Duke would not be able to make a donation of land and rights of way to the DOLRT project, and which was provided to meet what you had indicated was a deadline of November 30, 2018,” the Duke letter stated.

FTA officials, in a draft report sent to GoTriangle last week, noted that agreements with third-party partners, such as the N.C. Railroad Company and Duke, are critical to the project advancing. The report also encouraged GoTriangle to add more people who can “build and sustain a more effective working relationship” with its partners and secure land needed for the project.

It’s important that the project stay on schedule, FTA officials said.

‘We can overcome them again’

The news came just hours before the Orange County Board of Commissioners met Thursday night.

Duke is “doubling down on a false narrative” about the electromagnetic concerns, said Commissioner Mark Marcoplos, the county’s representative on the GoTriangle Board of Trustees.

“I resent the fact that Duke University has been such a bad-faith negotiator,” he said before the meeting. “It does not bode well for the region. Beyond that, in terms of a solution, at this point, I don’t know.”

During the meeting, Marcoplos said FTA officials are requiring additional money be set aside for possible cost overruns and inflation adjustments. FTA officials also have said interest rates could be lower for federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loans that would help pay for the light-rail project, he said, which could generate some savings.

The commissioners will hear more about the project and the cost-sharing agreement with Durham at their March 12 meeting.

“We don’t know what that looks like right now,” Commissioners Chair Penny Rich said.

There also could be a meeting among the light-rail partners — Durham, Orange and the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro regional transit planning group — next week, she said.

The cost-sharing agreement requires the partners to meet if there are substantial changes to the project. Rich said she doesn’t know what that meeting could address, but Duke’s rejection of light rail and N.C. Railroad’s reluctance to sign an agreement with GoTriangle until several conditions are met do not bode well for the project’s future.

Only one person spoke during Thursday’s public comment period. Nick Jimenez, an associate attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, encouraged the commissioners to do “everything you can to support the project.”

Duke’s decision is “only a setback,” he said, noting that many hours have been spent on light-rail planning and to bring better transit and job opportunities and reduce emissions for people who get out of their cars and get on the train.

“None of this support goes away just because we hit this obstacle,” Jimenez said. “This has been a very long project. We’ve hit setbacks before, and we can overcome them again.”

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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.