Orange County

Orange County may push ahead with lesser share of light-rail cost

An artist’s rendering of a light-rail train running beside U.S. 15-501 over New Hope Creek in Durham.
An artist’s rendering of a light-rail train running beside U.S. 15-501 over New Hope Creek in Durham. Contributed

A plan reducing Orange County’s share of the Durham-Orange Light-Rail plan’s $3.3 billion cost won support Thursday but also raised questions about the county’s options if something goes wrong.

The Durham County Board of Commissioners will vote Monday, April 24, on a revised transit plan, financial model and cost-sharing agreement with Orange County. The Orange County Board of Commissioners will vote Thursday, April 27.

The public won’t be able to weigh in at Thursday’s meeting but can email comments to

The decisions are required by April 30 to meet a Federal Transit Administration deadline for moving the light-rail project into the engineering phase. The project, if the FTA agrees, will move another step closer to seeking federal money for half of the $2.5 billion construction cost.

The project’s total cost, including interest on planned loans, would be $3.3 billion through 2062.

Durham and Orange counties will ask the state to pay up to 10 percent of the construction cost, leaving the counties to split nearly $1.9 billion.

The current agreement requires Durham County to pay 77 percent of the local cost and Orange County to pay 23 percent, based on how much of the 17.7-mile light-rail system is in each county. The system would link 18 stations from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to N.C. Central University in Durham.

However, Orange County’s commissioners expressed interest Thursday in pursuing the latest renegotiated proposal. The suggested split would require Durham County to pay 81.5 percent of the local cost, or about $1.55 billion, and Orange County to pay 16.5 percent, or roughly $316 million.

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, set a goal earlier this week of raising $100 million in cash and land. The group’s 2 percent share is not guaranteed.

The cost-sharing proposal is a big improvement, Commissioners Mia Burroughs and Barry Jacobs said.

“I think that Durham – just as it was with Little River Regional Park and Hollow Rock – is a very accommodating partner,” Jacobs said. “They worked hard to try and make this work for us as well as for them.”

Ted Cole, the county’s consultant from Davenport and Co., calculated that Orange County alone would spend about $980 million over the next 45 years and earn roughly $1 billion from the transit tax revenues, generated by a half-cent sales tax, car rental fees and registration fees.

Revised figures now show Orange County’s cash balance for the project hitting a low of $4.4 million in 2019. The lowest cash balance for Durham County could be $3.4 million in 2027. Durham County’s numbers also include a commuter rail line project with Wake County, Cole said.

Orange County could use any remaining money to buy more bus services, Deputy County Manager Travis Myren said. County transit director Theo Letman has identified several Hillsborough and county routes that could be expanded.

If the counties don’t get the anticipated state or federal funding, the agreement requires them to meet with GoTriangle and consider other solutions.

“In the absence of federal funding, I would venture to say the project is not possible,” Myren said. “In absence of state funding, it becomes very difficult or impossible.”

However, GoTriangle and Durham County oppose a clause that would let either county back out if funding falls through and there’s no mutually agreeable solution. FTA officials could see that as undercutting the local commitment to the project and decide not to award the counties a grant, GoTriangle officials said.

Other clauses indicate the counties would be required to pay only what they can cover with the tax district revenues.

Orange County Attorney John Roberts will meet with his Durham County counterpart to consider new language before the boards vote next week. Jacobs argued for keeping the exit clause, which he said helps Orange County protect its residents and their money.

“The attorneys are going to get together and bring us something next Thursday that we’re going to be comfortable with,” Jacobs said. “If not, I will vote against the entire proposal, because I don’t want to be subject to the GoTriangle board or the MPO board or even our partners in Durham deciding they’ve already invested, they want to keep it going, and they’re going to ask us to put in money that we don’t have, to make a commitment that we can’t afford.”

“If we’re committed to the project, then we will do our best, as we have so far in good faith, to make it work,” he said.

Commissioner Penny Rich argued for removing the clause, which she said a future board opposed to light rail could use to abandon the project. That’s not likely once the county has put millions into light rail, said Commissioner Earl McKee, a longtime light-rail plan critic.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Other additions

Durham and Orange county commissioner represeentatives have recommended additional changes to each county’s revised bus and rail transit plan:

▪ Consider moving the Gateway station west, away from I-40, to increase Orange County’s economic development potential

▪ A clause protecting the New Hope Creek Watershed if Durham’s Patterson Place station is moved; GoTriangle is considering whether to shift the Patterson Place station east, beyond Sayward Drive.

▪ A clause requiring all parties to the agreement to approve any changes to station location or alignment

▪ Create a part-time position to manage Staff Working Group business, including quarterly status updates

▪ Require annual work plans tracking the transit plans’ implementation

▪ Orange and Durham counties form a partnership by June 2018 to pursue economic development at the Gateway and Woodmont border stations

▪ Require the partners to review the cost-sharing agreement at four-year transit plan updates