Orange County

Votes keep Durham-Orange light-rail, bus plans on track to engineering phase

A concept illustration shows a train arriving at a future Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit station in downtown Durham.
A concept illustration shows a train arriving at a future Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit station in downtown Durham. Contributed

GoTriangle got the final two votes needed Friday to keep the Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit project moving through the Federal Transit Administration’s grant process.

The $3.3 billion light-rail project, if fully funded, would link 18 stations along a 17.7-mile rail line between UNC Hospitals and N.C. Central University. Six stations would be in Chapel Hill and 12 in the city of Durham.

The Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization and the GoTriangle Board of Trustees voted Friday to approve Durham County’s and Orange County’s revised transit plans and their new cost-sharing agreement.

Durham County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs, who serves on the GoTriangle board, called the votes “a historic moment and a significant investment in the future prosperity of Durham, Orange and Wake counties.”

GoTriangle now will ask the FTA to approve engineering work on the plans, which need 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.

Friday’s votes followed less than two hours of discussion and two 5-2 votes Thursday at the Orange County Board of Commissioners meeting. Commissioners Earl McKee and Renee Price voted against the Orange County Transit Plan and the cost-sharing agreement.

Price said she weighed the county’s financial risk, the potential environmental and traffic impact, and the lack of direct service to rural communities and those where lower-income and people of color live.

She compared the proposals to “shifting sand without firm foundation and without confidence.”

“Even though I’m very much in favor of mass transit ... and I acknowledge the potential benefits of light rail in concept, I truly think the current proposed light rail project for Orange County is economically unviable, environmentally unsound and socially unjust,” Price said.

While some commissioners remained firmly behind light rail, Commissioner Barry Jacobs noted his was not a clear-cut decision. But sometimes you have to take a chance and work with your neighbors, he said.

“The world requires at some point that you take little leaps of faith, and I think that if Orange County is fiscally protected, I’m willing to take the leap of faith,” he said.

More about the plans:

Q. What’s in the Orange County Transit Plan?

▪ A light-rail transit route from Chapel Hill to Durham

▪ Bus services and $6.1 million for Chapel Hill’s $125 million bus-rapid transit route

▪ An Amtrak train station in Hillsborough

Q. What’s in the Durham County Transit Plan?

▪ A light-rail transit route from Chapel Hill to Durham

▪ A Wake-Durham Commuter Rail line and bus services

Q. Where does the local money for light rail come from? 

▪ A half-cent transit sales tax, vehicle registration and car rental fees; no other local money is required

▪ $965.5 million in short- and long-term debt (to be repaid using taxes, fees, and state and federal dollars)

Q. What does Orange County pay?

▪ $316.9 million (16.5 percent of construction costs, 18.5 percent of interest)

▪ 19 percent to 20 percent of the light-rail operations and maintenance ($6.2 million/year by 2045)

Q. What does Durham County pay?

▪ $1.5 billion (81.5 percent of construction costs and interest)

▪ 80 percent to 81 percent of light-rail operations and maintenance ($26.2 million/year by 2045)

Q. Other money?

▪ A federal grant could pay $1.2 billion, and the state could pay up to $247 million. The final state contribution won’t be known until June 2019. Failing to get federal money could stop the light-rail project.

▪ A public-private Funding and Community Collaborative, GoTriangle, and its partners could pay 2 percent of construction costs; that money is not guaranteed.

Q. What if something goes wrong?

Durham, Orange and GoTriangle would meet within 15 business days to consider other solutions, including looking for other money; delaying, suspending or reducing the project; or stopping the project. If the project stops, officials would meet within 20 business days to draft a new transit plan.

If they can’t agree, it goes to mediation and then an arbitration hearing before three judges – one picked by each county and one picked jointly.

Q. What’s next?

▪ GoTriangle, with FTA approval, starts $70 million in engineering work. The final state and federal funding decisions could be in mid-2019, with construction starting in 2020. The opening date is in 2029.

▪ The Orange and Durham county commissioners will have to fully commit to the plan in 2018.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb