Durham County

Durham commissioners say they support Wake commuter rail, but it may be delayed

Durham County remains committed to building a 37-mile commuter rail between Wake and Durham counties even though it may not be able to meet Wake County’s 10-year timeline, elected leaders say.

“We can do it if we do it in a phased approach,” Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said about the financial challenges of building a pair of potentially multi-billion dollar transit projects within the next 20 years.

Commissioners said the commuter rail is a key part of the plan to connect the Triangle with rail and light rail, projects that will address traffic challenges as Durham, Orange and Wake counties grow.

The Wake County Transit Plan calls for the Wake-Durham Commuter Rail Project to connect Garner and Durham with stops in Raleigh, including N.C. State University; Cary; Morrisville and Research Triangle Park by 2027.

Durham County would face a $211.8 million shortfall in its transit fund by fiscal year 2028 if Durham County moved forward with the plan to launch the Wake-Durham Commuter Rail Project by 2027 at the same time it is pursuing the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project connecting UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University, said Mindy Taylor, a senior financial analyst at GoTriangle. The light rail line is currently expected to open around 2029.

Previously a GoTriangle official said Durham would face a $170.6 million shortfall in fiscal year 2035 if Durham agreed to a 33 percent share of the commuter rail line and a 2027 delivery date, but officials said that shortfall figure was out of date, Taylor said.

Durham County is paying for its share of the light-rail and commuter-rail projects with money from a half-cent transit sales tax, car-rental fees and vehicle-registration fees.

The commuter-rail project becomes more viable if it is pushed back 10 years, with an opening date in 2037, and Durham shouldering 20 percent of the costs, Taylor said.

Reckhow said delaying may allow the project to qualify for state dollars, which its current budget doesn’t include. State dollars would allow Durham to participate sooner than the 20 years, Reckhow said. Other fundraising options could include raising money from other partners, possibly through a special transportation-related tax in the Research Triangle Park district.

“Just like we are doing for light rail, we are going to have to come up with creative approaches,” said Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs said.

The competing timelines follow Durham and Orange voters approving a half-cent sales in 2012 for expanding public transportation, while Wake leaders didn’t put the question before their voters until November. After Durham and Orange approved their tax, they moved forward with a plan to build light rail between the two counties.

The cost of the light rail plan has ballooned since original projections in 2012 as the state cut its share of costs from 25 percent up to 10 percent. Costs also increased when a station near N.C. Central University was added. Federal dollars are expected to pay 50 percent of the capital costs of both the light rail and commuter rail projects.

The light-rail project is expected to cost $3.3 billion with inflation, and financing added through year 2062. Durham and Orange will split the about $1.9 billion local share.

Under the current cost-sharing agreement, Durham County pays 77 percent of the capital costs and Orange County 23 percent, based on the amount of light rail line and the number of stations and projected riders in each county.

The two counties are considering changing the cost-sharing agreement this month to 82 percent for Durham County and 18 percent for Orange County.

Orange and Durham commissioners are being asked this month to approve updated bus and rail plans, financial plans and interlocal agreements.

The decisions must be made by an April 30 federal grant deadline or else the Federal Transit Administration could delay the rail project at least a year.

Durham County Commissioners plan to hold a public hearing and vote on the plan at their 7 p.m. April 24 meeting.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges