Durham County

Wake County does the Durham-Orange Light Rail plan a big favor

A concept illustration shows a train on the future Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit traveling alongside U.S. 15-501.
A concept illustration shows a train on the future Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit traveling alongside U.S. 15-501. Courtesy of GoTriangle

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel is feeling confident about the Durham-Orange Light Rail project.

“This is actually going to happen, yo,” he said at a transportation summit Tuesday at the Durham Performing Arts Center.

“I really believe it now.”

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One particular reason the first-term mayor was feeling confident was because Wake County officials recently did the $3.3 billion light-rail plan a big favor.

Two weeks ago, in an under-the-radar move, Schewel said, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) removed its bus rapid transit project from the current round of state funding competition – a pot of state money that projects must compete for.

“In order for us to get enough funding from the state we need very little competition in the regional pot,” Schewel said. “We asked them to withdraw those projects for now to give the Durham-Orange Light Rail a clearer path to funding, and they did. … It would’ve been a big hit if they hadn’t.”

CAMPO is responsible for the planning of Wake County and several surrounding counties’ transportation systems. It is the eastern Triangle counterpart of the Durham-Chapel-Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“It was a very generous move on their behalf,” said Patrick McDonough, manager of planning at GoTriangle, who said this will allow the light rail to maximize its amount of state funding.

The light-rail project, which is in the federal engineering phase currently, is contingent on federal money to pay half of the light-rail construction cost and state money to pay up to 10 percent. The counties would share the remaining $1.8 billion local cost and interest on debt that will bridge the years until state and federal money is available.

Schewel’s comments came at the “Connecting to Opportunity,” which was organized by GoTriangle, Triangle J Council of Governments and Gateway Planning. The summit brought together experts and local leaders to discuss how to best take advantage of a massive new transit system.

Schewel spoke alongside Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger. Both mayors touted the light rail plan as essential to their cities’ growth.

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, left, and Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger spoke together Tuesday about how light rail will transform their respective communities. Zachery Eanes The Herald-Sun

“No offense to our neighbors … but we don’t want to become north Raleigh,” Schewel said, adding that Durham is adding about 20 new residents a day.

“We are filling up one of those four-story apartment developments every month ... and if we want to avoid north-Raleigh-like sprawl, we got to have light rail to help us steer that growth. The light rail will be the organizing mechanism for growth by its very existence.”

Growth and development is going to revolve around the 19 light-rail stations between N.C. Central University and the UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. Both mayors said it would be absolutely necessary to make sure that development would be equitable to all citizens, not just wealthy ones.

Chapel Hill is hampered on what it can do with its six stations, since half the sites are owned by the university and another one around the Glen Lennox area is already heavily developed, Hemminger said.

But, Schewel said, Durham is committed to making sure all Durhamites, especially people of color, will be able to take advantage of the growth the transit line brings. The city and county are currently hoping to use four public properties – one on Jackson Street downtown, two on East Main Street and Fayette Place – to create affordable housing near light-rail stops.

However one of Durham’s main strategies for ensuring poor Durhamites are not crowded out from the growth was dealt a blow by the federal tax cuts enacted by the Trump administration last year.

“The new tax law has cut the value of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit,” Schewel said.

The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit has been responsible for 90 percent of affordable rental units across the country. But because the tax credit is tied to the corporate tax rate, which was lowered, the credits are worth less money now.

Schewel said that because of the tax cuts, the number of affordable units created by the tax credit will be reduced by 250,000 nationally over the next 10 years.

“We are all working in partnerships (to build affordable housing),” Hemminger said. “When one half of the partnership gets cut to the bone it makes it really impossible.”

Schewel added that it could hurt the city’s ability to build 80 affordable rental units at its planned Jackson Street project.

“It hurts our ability, and every city’ ability, to build affordable housing for people,” he said. “We are relying on being able to get a tax credit for (Jackson Street), but that tax credit is going to produce less equity now. ... That means funding will have to come from more local funding or cuts in the project.

“Somehow that gap will have to be covered, or less affordable housing gets built.”

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes