Durham County

Durham County Commissioners approve revised Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit cost-sharing agreement

A concept illustration shows what a Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit station might look like in downtown Durham. Courtesy of GoTriangle.
A concept illustration shows what a Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit station might look like in downtown Durham. Courtesy of GoTriangle.

Durham County approved a revised cost-sharing agreement for the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project on Monday that would shrink both Durham and Orange counties’ share of the $3.3 billion project and push it one step closer to reality.

Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Board of County Commissioners, called the agreement “a historic vote.”

The 17.7-mile light-rail line would link 18 stations between UNC Hospitals and N.C. Central University. Six stations would be in Chapel Hill (three in Orange County on UNC land) and 12 in the city of Durham.

The Durham County commissioners’ vote was the first of several that will be needed before the plan is submitted by the Federal Transit Administration’s April 30 deadline.

Under an earlier plan, Durham County would have picked up 82 percent of the project’s nearly $1.9 billion local costs and Orange County would have picked up 18 percent. But Orange County wanted to renegotiate how much it was willing to pay.

Under the revised plan, approved Monday night, Durham County would pay 81.5 percent of the local cost, or about $1.55 billion, and Orange County would pay 16.5 percent, or roughly $316 million. Each county is expected to pay its share with money from a half-cent transit sales tax, car rental fees and vehicle registration fees.

A public-private Funding and Community Collaborative offered to pay the remaining 2 percent through donations of cash and land for the rail system. The group, which has pledges for $18 million in land, has set a goal of raising $100 million in cash and land. The group’s 2 percent share is not guaranteed.

GoTriangle is also setting up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to reach out to individuals, private companies and foundations for additional donations, said John Tallmadge, director of GoTriangle's Regional Services Development Department. All of the money needs to be collected by the middle of 2019, when GoTriangle applies for federal grant money.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners plans to vote Thursday, April 27, on moving the light-rail project forward. The Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization and GoTriangle will also need to approve both county plans.

The project plan, if approved, will be submitted to the Federal Transit Administration by April 30. FTA approval is required to enter the engineering phase, the next step in seeking federal grant money expected to cover 50 percent of the light-rail project’s $2.4 billion construction cost.

“We will reserve celebration until all four bodies have said this is the right path,” Tallmadge said. GoTriangle wants to start light-rail construction in 2020 and launch the system in 2029.

Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow said the revised cost-share agreement, which lowers the amount Durham County pays for the light rail project by half a percentage point, would help the county pay for the Durham-Orange project and the Durham-Wake Commuter Rail project.

“I want to point out that Durham didn’t get a worse deal; it is actually slightly better,” she said. “We feel as though the slight change was beneficial to our goal of being able to participate in both light rail (and commuter rail).”

Along with funding the light-rail project and the commuter rail project, the revised transit plan approved Monday would also fund improvements to near-term bus service in Durham County, Rekhow said.

Before voting on the revised plan, Jacobs cautioned that this was only the first step for Durham’s transit plans and that issues of affordable housing near light-rail stations will be important going forward.

“Light rail will give us an effective tool to deal with the traffic already negatively impacting Durham, Orange and Wake counties. It will also give us a way to connect our citizens to the amazing resources we have in our region, great jobs and great universities,” she said.

“I am fully aware that this vote tonight is the most important vote I will make as a county commissioner,” she said.

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes