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GoTriangle ends Durham-Orange Light Rail project. Advocates call it a ‘tragic loss.’

The GoTriangle board of trustees voted unanimously but reluctantly Wednesday to end the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project.

After a closed-door session Wednesday, general manager Jeff Mann recommended to the board that the agency discontinue the $2.7 billion construction project to connect UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill with Duke University and other destinations along an 18-mile route.

The decision is disappointing in light of the plans that Durham has made over the last several years for jobs, economic development, affordable housing and other benefits, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel and Durham County Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs said.

Chapel Hill Town Council member Michael Parker added that the light-rail line was expected to be the backbone of that town’s transit system and its planned north-south bus-rapid transit line from Interstate 40 to UNC’s campus and Southern Village.

The region could try to go it alone, Schewel said, but the responsible thing to do is shut down the project. It “is a tremendous setback,” he said.

“I don’t think I could overstate that,” Schewel said. “We are taking a huge hit. We’re giving up $1.25 billion in federal funding by not moving forward with this. There is no path forward.”

Opposition from Duke University, escalating project costs and two state deadlines were forcing possible major cuts in the 19-station project, including eliminating a planned stop at N.C. Central University, GoTriangle officials said.

The problems were “more complex than sometimes can be conveyed through the media,” said board member Jennifer Robinson, a Cary Town Council member. “It’s just unfortunate that we’ve gotten to a place where the hurdles are insurmountable.”

Mann said staff met with senior leaders at the Federal Transit Administration last week in Washington, who expressed significant concerns.

“The FTA let us know that [with] the continued uncertainty with Duke and N.C. Railroad and the additional environmental assessment needed for downtown Durham changes, as well as the need to secure additional funding, [it] is no longer practical for the Durham-Orange light-rail project to receive a full funding grant agreement by November,” Mann said. “Very low probability.”

In a statement Wednesday afternoon the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit, Orange County Transit Advocates/NEXT Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Durham Congregations in Action and the Durham Housing Authority board said ending the light-rail project “represents a tragic loss for the Durham and Orange County communities.”

If Duke and the state had supported the project, it would be moving forward today, the group said. The loss of jobs, economic development, housing and other benefits will harm not just the region, but the entire state, they said.

“The community advocates who have supported this light-rail project stand ready to work with our elected officials and GoTriangle in the necessary and continuing work to provide affordable, workable transit options for all of our residents, including those who work, reside or must travel to our region’s largest employers,” the statement said.

Cuts loomed

Before the vote, interim light-rail project manager John Tallmadge noted cost savings totaling roughly $149 million.

They included eliminating projected low-ridership stations, including Hamilton and Woodmont stations in Orange County; building smaller park-and-ride lots; and operating the trains in the early years with only one car.

The biggest savings — $60 million — could have come from cutting the NCCU station, Tallmadge said.

Before the board’s closed session, Durham resident Waldo Fenner told the group he was disappointed that after 20 years and $130 million in taxpayer money spent, Duke gets the final say in whether the light rail project is built. He blamed Durham city and county leaders.

“We elected you guys. You’re supposed to be fighting for us,” he said. “If you’re not going to fight for us, remove yourself from that seat and let somebody else [have it] who is going to do what needs to be done.”

But board members repeatedly emphasized Duke wasn’t the only roadblock.

N.C. General Assembly actions cutting the state’s share of construction costs from 25 percent to 7.7 percent, and setting deadlines for getting federal funding reduced GoTriangle’s ability to respond to changes and new FTA requirements, they said.

The region “should not forget that probably the biggest blow was the legislature hobbling us and challenging us to win the race,” Orange County Commissioner Mark Marcoplos said.

Challenges

The project faced a seemingly insurmountable number of challenges, among them:

Another $267 million in costs, including for a downtown bridge, underpass and tunnel system in Durham

Lagging public and private fundraising

N.C. Railroad Company concerns that have delayed agreements

A looming eminent domain battle for Duke University’s land, following its rejection of a cooperative agreement. State eminent domain law would make it very difficult, if not impossible, to take Duke’s land, GoTriangle legal staff told the board Wednesday.

There were also reports and plans to be completed, including a revised environmental study for the downtown corridor, new financial plans and cost-sharing agreements. Those updates required public comment periods, and Orange and Durham commissioners would have had to approve a new financial plan and cost-sharing agreement.

Durham County Commissioner Wendy Jacobs was skeptical that cuts made now could be restored in the future. She noted promises made to Durham’s black community when the Durham Freeway was built; more promises that might not be kept are unacceptable, she said.

“If we cut back all these things to make this project go forward, with the intent of doing them later, but then we take on so much local funding … in reality we’d never get the money back to actually do the things that we had cut out,” she said.

GoTriangle will continue to collect the half-cent sales tax and portion of car registration and rental fees that are funding light rail and other transit improvements. That money will be available for other plans, Marcoplos said.

“We will be quickly working on a way to supplant what the light rail might have done for us to the best of our ability considering that the light rail was well studied and was the best solution for our problem, but we have other options and a commitment to provide the best transit that we can,” he said.

Financial outlook

Federal money could have paid about $1.25 billion of the estimated $2.7 billion in construction costs.

Failure to have the local funding in place by April 30 or the federal funding by Nov. 30, however, could have cost the project $190 million in state funding.

Orange County, meanwhile, capped its construction cost at $149.5 million; Durham County’s share was about $1 billion. Neither figure included interest on short- and long-term debt.

FTA officials also reported last week a “low” rating for the project’s cost-effectiveness at the end of November — the lowest score in a scale of five. The financial outlook was a mixed bag: “medium high” overall, but “medium low” for its “reasonableness” and “medium” for its commitment of local funds.

A draft FTA risk assessment released in March rated the project through Dec. 31 — after the downtown changes but before Duke’s decision to pull out and the N.C. Railroad agreement was delayed.

The FTA risk assessment pressed the importance of staying on schedule and noted several risks, from increasing third-party demands to unexpected soil contamination and other construction concerns.

The board’s decision Wednesday doesn’t mean it isn’t committed to a regional transit system, said Sig Hutchinson, a GoTriangle board member and Wake County commissioner.

Transit projects “died a thousand deaths,” he said, but “you just have to keep going.” The one concern is rail and the relationship that the region has with N.C. Railroad and Norfolk Southern, he said. That relationship will be crucial for the pending, 37-mile Wake-Durham commuter rail project.

“They have to be willing partners to come to the table to find solutions that work for everyone,” Hutchinson said. “They have been an issue ... and for us to move forward with a transit plan based on guided rail, they have to be willing partners who in good faith work with us to make transit work for the region.”

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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.
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