Durham County

NC left Durham-Orange Light Rail with a $57M gap. Now Durham says it can fill it.

Durham County now says it can fill a $57.6 million state funding gap for the Durham-Orange light rail project.

The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project is an 18-stop, 17.7-mile line that will run from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to N.C. Central University in Durham, with stops along the way including Duke University and downtown Durham. Most of the line is in Durham.

The Durham County Board of Commissioners approved a letter from Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs to the GoTriangle Board of Trustees on Monday night, agreeing to fund the $57.6 million gap created after the N.C. General Assembly changed the funding makeup this summer.

As recently as June GoTriangle said the project’s partners still needed to figure out how to fill the funding gap. Jacobs wrote that she, Commissioner Ellen Reckhow and Orange County Commissioners Mark Dorosin and Mark Marcoplos met several times this summer to work it out.

Now Durham County has determined it has enough money in its dedicated local transit revenues, Jacobs wrote.

“Based on updated modeling with still conservative estimates, Durham County’s dedicated transit revenues are robust and sufficient to cover the revenue shortfall,” she wrote. “Durham County is committed to using these additional funds for this purpose.”

The commissioners unanimously approved their chair’s letter at Monday night’s meeting.

Commissioner Heidi Carter said she wanted to make it clear that the money will not be coming from some additional tax.

“It’s not going to take away from other transit plans, bus services, or other initiative we approved last year for the county,” Carter said.

After the meeting, Jacobs said they were fortunate to have the funds because of Durham County’s tax base.

“Because of our thriving economy, we’re doing well,” she said. “Everything that is in our current plan will still be able to move forward, including our commuter rail with Wake County.”

Jacobs said the project’s debt payments will also come out of the local transit revenues. Durham County does not expect Orange County to add additional funds because “Orange County’s revenues are not sufficient at this time.”

The Home Builders Association of Durham, Orange and Chatham Counties sent a letter supporting the funding to the Durham City Council on Sunday via Wib Gulley, a former Durham mayor and state senator.

Gulley thanked the council members and commissioners “for your work and support for this vital investment in our community’s future.”

On Monday night, speakers from Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods (CAN), the Durham Housing Authority, the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce and the People’s Alliance political group spoke in support of the light rail project and funding.

Durham Housing Authority Development Director Meredith Daye said more than “75 percent of our [public housing] units are within half a mile of proposed light rail stations.”

The light rail line is projected to open in 2028.

More than connect the universities, the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project “will lay the foundation for the next century of progress in our region and it will play an essential role in North Carolina’s continued success,” Jacobs wrote. “For these reasons, Durham County maintains its unwavering support.”

The total project cost, according to GoTriangle, is $2.5 billion, and $29 million each year to operate the rail line. Another $890 million in local money would pay the interest on debt.

The funding breakdown, from GoTriangle:

50 percent from the Federal Transit Administration through the New Starts Capital Investment Grant program.

42 percent from local resources including a voter approved half-cent sales tax, vehicle registration fees, and right-of-way and other private donations.

7 percent from the state through the N.C. Department of Transportation Strategic Transportation Investment program. That is capped at $190 million.

The operation and maintenance costs would be paid for by local tax revenue and fares.

In a joint statement from Durham County Commissioners and Orange County Commissioners, Dorosin wrote that Orange commissioners “appreciate the collaborative and cooperative support of our colleagues in Durham, and are encouraged that we’ve been able to come up with a positive strategy for keep the Durham-Orange Light Rail project moving forward.”

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan
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