Orange County

Counties reach decision point on Durham-Orange Light-Rail Project

Orange and Durham county leaders will decide this month whether to advance the $3.3 billion Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project and how to split the local costs.

The Durham County Board of Commissioners reiterated its support this week for both the light-rail project and the 37-mile Wake-Durham Commuter Rail Project. However, the commissioners are considering a delay in opening the commuter rail system — estimated to cost roughly $881 million — to 2037.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing Tuesday, April 18 to talk about the Durham-Orange Bus and Rail Investment Plan. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. at the Southern Human Services Center, 2501 Homestead Road in Chapel Hill.

Orange County’s commissioners plan to vote Thursday, April 27, on moving the plan’s light-rail project forward. The Durham County commissioners will vote Monday, April 24.

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.

GoTriangle could finance a large portion of the local expense, bringing the total cost with interest to $3.3 billion.

More details about the Durham-Orange Bus and Rail Investment Plan:

Q. What does it include?

▪  A light rail transit route from Chapel Hill to Durham

▪  Money for existing and future bus service improvements in Chapel Hill and Durham

▪  5 percent ($6.1 million) of Chapel Hill’s $125 million Bus Rapid Transit Project cost

▪  Hillsborough’s Amtrak train station

Q. What is the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project?

The 17.7-mile 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 trains would be powered by overhead electrical lines and operate on a fixed guideway, separate from traffic. A train is expected to run every 10 minutes during peak travel times and every 20 minutes at other times. It could take between 44 and 46 minutes to ride from end to end.

Q. Has the cost increased?

The approved 2012 plan estimated the cost of building and equipping the light-rail system at $1.8 billion. The cost is now $2.4 billion. That includes $133 million to extend the route and add an NCCU station and an optional $130 million for station development projects.

Most of the increase in local costs is due to a 15 percent drop in expected state funding.

Q. Where’s the local money for light rail? 

The latest financial plan assumes $1.2 billion in federal funding, up to $239 million from the state and $1.9 billion from Durham and Orange counties, including interest on debt. The final state contribution won’t be known until June 2019.

Durham and Orange County officials could vote this month on a new cost-sharing agreement. Durham County could pick up 82 percent of the local cost, or $1.6 billion, if the agreement is approved. Orange County could pick up 18 percent, or $342 million.

The counties would pay part of the construction cost with revenues from a half-cent transit sales tax, car rental fees and vehicle registration fees. The remainder would be financed with $984 million in short- and long-term debt, repayable through 2062.

An independent analysis for Orange County noted that additional short-term debt may be needed between 2040 and 2060 to fund light-rail repair and maintenance costs.

The counties also would be responsible for construction costs that run more than 30 percent over what’s anticipated in the financial plan.

Q. What happens next?

GoTriangle will initiate $70 million in engineering work if the FTA approves the next step. The final application for federal grant money could be submitted in late 2019, with final approval anticipated in early 2020. The final decision about state funding is expected in mid-2019.

Construction of the light-rail project is expected to start in 2020, with an opening date in 2029.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

What’s next

The Orange County Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 18, at the Southern Human Services Center, 2501 Homestead Road in Chapel Hill. Information about the project is available at orangecountync.gov/transitplan.

The public comment signup sheet will be available at 5:30 p.m., and speakers will be allowed to only sign up for themselves to ensure they are present. Each speaker will have up to three minutes and cannot assign their minutes to other speakers, county officials said.

The meeting will be broadcast on Time Warner Cable digital channel 1301 and streamed live online at bit.ly/2p6Qqxb. A video should be available at the same weblink by noon Wednesday.

Comments also can be emailed ocbocc@orangecountync.gov.

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