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Has Duke killed the Durham-Orange light-rail project? Here’s what leaders say now

Has Duke derailed the Durham-Orange light-rail project?

Duke University refused to sign an agreement with GoTriangle to continue working on the Durham-Orange light-rail line on Erwin Road. Duke’s land is key to the project advancing.
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Duke University refused to sign an agreement with GoTriangle to continue working on the Durham-Orange light-rail line on Erwin Road. Duke’s land is key to the project advancing.

Duke University may have dealt a devastating blow to the Durham-Orange light-rail project, but GoTriangle and some local leaders say it’s not done yet.

“It’s not dead until we say it’s dead,” Orange County Commissioner Mark Marcoplos said Tuesday night

A March 5 Indy story quoted him as saying Duke’s decision leaves the light-rail project “99 percent dead.”

“Another way to say it, it’s on life support, but it still has a heartbeat,” he said. “There’s options to explore and questions to answer, such as if we took the eminent domain route. Would that mean we didn’t need a cooperative agreement with Duke?”

The cooperative agreement, which Duke rejected Feb. 27, would have continued its collaboration with GoTriangle. A lease agreement for the land needed for light rail would have come later.

Marcoplos and Durham County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs said elected officials owe it to the people who spent years working on and supporting the light-rail project to consider every option. Both are members of the GoTriangle Board of Trustees.

Jacobs also noted the spending so far of over $135 million in Orange and Durham sales taxes and car rental and registration fees. The money is a drop in the bucket compared to the light-rail project’s now nearly $2.7 billion construction cost. Federal money is expected to pay about $1.25 billion, with another $190 million from the state.

An FTA grant would reimburse half of the money spent so far on environmental studies, staffing, consultants, planning, design work and engineering. No grant means that money is gone.

“When something like this happens and you have a tremendous, devastating blow, which is Duke basically walking away from this process, you don’t just all of a sudden give up,” Jacobs said. “Personally, it would be irresponsible of me as an elected official and as somebody who is on the GoTriangle board and on the (Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro) MPO board to do that.”

Light rail is one of two key projects for the Triangle’s economic and population growth, N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Jim Trogdon told the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro planning group Wednesday. The other is the I-540 project in Wake County, he said.

“Those two single projects will have more impact on the region’s future than any others that we have,” Trogdon said.

“Can you talk to Duke?” Orange County Commissioners Chair Penny Rich quipped, to laughter from the room.

“I have shared my thoughts,” Trogdon responded.

Orange County has capped its construction cost at $149.5 million; Durham’s share is roughly $1 billion with the additional costs. Neither figure includes interest on debt.

The project is on a challenging path, from getting Duke’s land to raising private donations and deciding how to pay for increasing costs. GoTriangle also continues to negotiate with N.C. Railroad Company and Norfolk Southern for a cooperative agreement and land lease.

N.C. Railroad officials have told GoTriangle that plans for the two-mile rail corridor are only 20 percent complete and do not address their concerns. Tallmadge said Tuesday that work could be done by an April 30 state deadline for having local money and pledges in place. The state has set a Nov. 30 deadline for getting the Federal Transit Administration grant.

The Durham and Orange County commissioners could get revised financial plans and new cost-sharing agreement in the next few weeks, Tallmadge said. Missing either deadline risks losing state funding.

Meanwhile, attorneys are exploring options for Duke’s land between U.S. 15-501 and the Washington Duke Golf Club, along Erwin Road and near Buchanan Boulevard. Eminent domain would start with a land appraisal, a fair market offer to buy the land and negotiations with Duke. The last step — condemnation — would take Duke’s land for the fair market value but could start a protracted legal battle.

“We have to keep making every effort to assess all the challenges and all the risks and look at all the options we have, and make the best decision, possible because of the incredible investment that we’ve already made,” Jacobs said, “and because so much of our future for Durham and Orange and the region is based on this plan, on this project.”

That is especially true for Durham, she noted, because of the years planning for light-rail station growth, transportation, affordable housing and “sustainable, walkable, mixed-use communities.” There’s also been workforce development planning with Durham Tech and GoTriangle, she said.

“At end of the day, if the light-rail project falls through, we have just lost our entire strategy for managing our growth for the region, connecting people to jobs, (and) providing an alternative form of transportation as traffic gets worse,” Jacobs said.

Did Duke kill light rail?

Duke’s decision not to sign a cooperative agreement — and not donate $16 million in land at the heart of the light-rail route — is a serious hurdle but not the only one. Read more about previous challenges at bit.ly/2T56tt0.

New hurdles were revealed this week, including an FTA request to revise the environmental study for downtown Durham. Local officials learned that study would be required after the federal shutdown ended in February, Marcoplos said.

It must be drafted, submitted for 30 days of public comment and revised again before April 30. The final light-rail plan also has to be completed and posted for public comment by the deadline.

Duke’s decision to pull out also has affected GoTriangle’s private fundraising effort, Tallmadge said. The nonprofit GoTransit Partners has raised $15 million of $102.5 million in needed cash and land donations, mostly from UNC and N.C. Central University. Now corporate donors want to know the project is going to be built before pledging a donation, he said.

Local money could be used to fill the gap until those donations come in, he added.

Addressing Duke’s concerns

Duke officials have issued multiple letters outlining their concerns since November. GoTriangle officials said they have tried to address those concerns, which include:

Rail alignment: Duke officials say any rail line that follows Erwin Road is unacceptable. Documents show Duke did not raise that concern until after GoTriangle received its Record of Decision from the FTA in 2016. At that point, the route could not be changed.

Safety and emergency access: GoTriangle agreed to work with Duke to manage traffic during construction and give emergency vehicles priority in traffic using signal pre-emption technology. GoTriangle also added a $90 million elevated track on Erwin Road.

Vibrations: GoTriangle would use construction techniques and monitoring to minimize the effect of vibrations from rail building activities and passing trains. Duke wants a vibration standard that Tallmadge said “is 40 times more stringent than the standard for especially sensitive operating rooms.”

Electromagnetic interference (EMI): GoTriangle documents show Duke first raised concerns about EMI affecting sensitive research and medical equipment in November 2017. GoTriangle officials said they still don’t have critical information about where the equipment is located.

“There are technical solutions, and nobody has ever said we will not address any of the concerns,” Jacobs said. “It’s not fair at this point to kill the whole project because you did not do your own homework.”

If Duke knew about EMI earlier but failed to mention it, she said, “then it’s irresponsible of them to let us go and spend $130 million if they were never going to agree to it.”

Duke sees the conversation differently, according to an email Wednesday from Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations. He referred questions about EMI issues and why they haven’t been addressed to GoTriangle.

“Duke has said consistently for 20 years that placing a rail line down Erwin Road was problematic for a number of reasons,” Schoenfeld said. “Duke expressed these concerns when the initial plan was for a diesel commuter train, and after it shifted to an electric light rail.”

Multiple requests for documents that reflect those conversations have been met with a link to a 1999 interview with former Duke President Nan Keohane. Keohane, in the Duke Chronicle story, said Duke opposed an elevated track on Erwin Road route, and “the change of character of the neighborhood that this would cause.”

Duke officials did not cite concerns about the light-rail route or EMI in years of documents submitted to the FTA. GoTriangle also did not mention EMI in its 2016 environmental study, Schoenfeld said, “which means they were either unaware of this well-known issue, or chose not to disclose it,” he said.

“To be clear: GoTriangle, not Duke, is responsible for building and operating a rail line safely and without creating danger to public health,” he said. “Why GoTriangle did not acknowledge the hazards presented by EMI until Duke pointed it out to them is question they need to answer.”

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