Orange County

Orange County residents weigh in last time before light rail vote

The $3.3 billion Durham-Orange light-rail financial plan continues to be revised, but Orange County’s share of local costs could be shrinking.

Durham and Orange counties recently negotiated a proposed 82/18 percent split of light rail’s roughly $1.9 billion local cost. Durham County was expected to pick up 80 percent under the original plan, and Orange County was to pick up 20 percent.

But GoTriangle officials said this week that Orange County might pay only 16.5 percent of the local light rail cost, or $313.5 million, under a new cost-sharing proposal. Orange County Commissioners Chairman Mark Dorosin said Durham would pick up 81.5 percent, or $1.5 billion, if the new deal is approved.

The remaining 2 percent could be covered by a public-private Funding and Community Collaborative that has pledged to raise $100 million for the 17.7-mile line between UNC Hospitals and N.C. Central University in Durham.

The state is expected to pay up to 10 percent of the remaining local cost.

Durham and Orange commissioners will decide this month whether to continue seeking Federal Transit Administration funding for other half of the project’s total capital cost. The Durham County commissioners will vote April 24; the Orange County commissioners will vote April 27.

The deadline for applying to the engineering phase of the FTA’s New Starts grant program is April 30.

Former GoTriangle General Manager David King said FTA approval would trigger the private, $100 million fund-raising effort. The 21-member collaborative includes citizens and leaders from universities, health care institutions and governments.

“That is a large number. It’s not automatic that it’s going to happen, but as you look at the names on this list ... you’ll see it involves people who have a track record of being able do things at this scale,” King said.

Public hearing

At a public hearing Tuesday night, the Orange County commissioners heard from 70 people, evenly split for and against advancing the light-rail project.

Their voices ranged from UNC graduate students and working commuters excited about having another option for getting around the region to residents living on fixed incomes and others who fear light-rail costs will siphon county money from other services or push taxes higher.

Carrboro resident Linda Haac said the project’s route across the county’s southwestern corner fails to serve most residents.

But the decision is not about the future of social justice, regional transit or future growth, she said. It’s about fiscal responsibility.

“Not only does it have to be fair for all our residents, you first and foremost have to meet your fiduciary responsibilities,” she said. “The business plans I have seen from GoTriangle made me question them as a partner … If my financial adviser brought me this, I would have to say it’s highly speculative.”

While he has the same concerns about using tax dollars responsibly, Orange County resident Jim Parker said he and his business, Summit Design and Engineering, support the light rail initiative.

“For our area, a major population center, effective and multimodal transportation options are critical to continue growth. Increasing population demands place our transportation infrastructure under tremendous strain, and it will continue to do so,” he said. “Congestion continues to increase as more people move to our area. It’s a great place to live and they’re going to continue to come, and the inconvenience of traffic will someday outweigh the great quality of life here.”

It’s about the next 30 years and beyond, noted Matt Fajack, UNC’s vice chancellor for finance and administration. He predicted the county would be considering light-rail spurs into the county and into Chatham County in 20 years if the commissioners are courageous.

UNC Health Care communications chief Karen McCall added light-rail also will benefit patients from across the state who need dependable alternatives to cars and parking when they come to UNC for care.

“We have to take a lesson from RTP. Where would this region be if 50 years ago the people that were developing RTP didn’t have the vision and courage to put that project forward. There were a lot of anxieties about developing RTP that they had to overcome,” Fajack said.

“We have a choice right now: Whether we want be an integrated part of a booming regional economy or do we want to become disconnected from this great region and get left behind,” he said.

Bus rapid transit

The light-rail plan is great for UNC and Duke, said Desiree Goldman, a local resident and Realtor who added the universities and health care centers are two of the area’s largest property owners who don’t pay taxes.

The light-rail cost is too high, even if Orange County only pays 16.5 percent, she said, because no one knows the final cost or the amount of overruns. While Durham will make money from the deal, she said, there’s no chance for that along Orange County’s short portion of the rail line.

“Technology is leap-frogging. In 10 years, this technology might be obsolete,” she said. “Bus rapid transit would allow us to be more adaptable,” she said, “and in the current state of our politics … do we really think that the federal government is going to give us money for this and that we can count on that we’re going to be able to keep to cost projections for 10 years out?”

Chapel Hill resident Kimberly Brewer agreed with giving bus rapid transit another look, noting that it not only would serve UNC and the hospital but also the rest of Orange County, and at a lower cost.

“It’s not cost effective when you look at the cost per rider, when you’re comparing that to buses and bus rapid transit. The cost is significant, and I think it’s a very significant financial risk for the Orange County taxpayers,” she said. “It really doesn’t go to places that many people want to go and need to go. It doesn’t support the town’s targeted desired growth areas that are there for an increased tax base.”

Revised figures now show Orange County’s cash balance for the project hitting a low of $1.05 million in 2030. The lowest cash balance expected for Durham County could be $7.1 million in 2027, officials said.

Durham County also is working on a commuter rail line with Wake County; the cost of that project isn’t known yet but is expected to be at least a billion dollars.

Orange County’s commissioners will continue the light-rail discussion Thursday, April 20, at the Whitted Building, 300 W. Tryon St. in Hillsborough. The board won’t hold another public hearing before voting, but residents can email comments to OCBOCC@orangecountync.gov.

Durham and Orange commissioners will get the final version of the financial plan Friday, April 21.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

About 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 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.

GoTriangle will initiate $70 million in engineering work if the Federal Transit Administration approves the next step. 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.

The light rail line is part of the overall Durham-Orange Bus and Rail Investment Plan, which also includes:

▪ Money for bus service improvements in Chapel Hill and Durham

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

▪ An Amtrak train station in Hillsborough

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