Orange County

Durham-Orange light rail one step closer to $1.2B in federal dollars

The Federal Transit Administration approved moving ahead this week with engineering work for the $2.47 billion Durham-Orange light-rail transit project.
The Federal Transit Administration approved moving ahead this week with engineering work for the $2.47 billion Durham-Orange light-rail transit project. Contributed

Questions about whether federal budget discussions would halt the $2.47 billion Durham-Orange light-rail transit project were answered Friday.

The Federal Transit Administration approved moving the 17.7-mile light-rail project into the engineering phase — the last design piece before learning whether the counties could get 50 percent of the project’s funding by 2020 from the federal government.

“Today marks an important step forward for the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project and our region’s transportation future,” said U.S. Rep. David Price, D-N.C. “I will continue working to ensure the federal government remains an active partner in this effort.”

The final federal decision also depends on the project getting up to 10 percent of its funding from the state and the remaining 40 percent from regional partners — roughly $890 million, plus interest on short- and long-term debt. GoTriangle plans to repay the debt through 2062.

The local split is estimated at $316.9 million for Orange County taxpayers and $1.5 billion for Durham County taxpayers, largely from vehicle registration fees, car rental fees and a half-cent transit sales tax. Officials also are working with the public-private Funding and Community Collaborative to secure land and cash donations. 

GoTriangle announced the FTA’s decision in a news release Friday. The project was submitted for consideration in April, but federal budget discussions this spring cast doubt on whether the money in the FTA’s New Starts and Small Starts programs would be there for major transit projects nationwide.

“FTA has determined that GoTriangle has the technical capacity and capability to effectively manage the Engineering phase of the Project,” the FTA letter stated.

However, the FTA also reiterated that President Donald Trump’s 2017-18 budget doesn’t include any new money for large transit projects, “and thus GoTriangle acknowledges that it is undertaking additional work at its own risk which may not receive any Capital Investments Grant funding.”

The letter rates the project as “medium” — the minimum rating on a five-point scale required to enter engineering. FTA officials want more information about what would happen if there are unexpected cost overruns or funding shortfalls, financing costs through 2032, and other risks to the project’s cost and schedule.

GoTriangle officials noted the project got favorable ratings in three major areas — local financial commitment, project justification and engineering readiness. The project was measured for its mobility improvements, environmental benefits, congestion relief, economic development effects, land use and cost-effectiveness.  

“We would like to sincerely thank the Federal Transit Administration for its support and collaboration on the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project,” GoTriangle General Manager Jeff Mann said. “We are pleased to continue working closely with our local, state and federal partners to deliver Durham and Orange counties’ plans for enhanced bus service, commuter rail, a new Amtrak station in Hillsborough and the light-rail project.”  

GoTriangle officials will discuss the project’s rating and FTA requests next week and what those mean for the project, spokesman Juan Carlos Erickson said. The $70 million engineering contract was approved this spring and the work is in progress.

Meanwhile, the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization plans to resubmit the project for North Carolina Department of Transportation funding. The project remains on track for construction in 2020, with service beginning in 2028, GoTriangle officials said.

If built, the light-rail line would link UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill with Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham. The plan includes 18 stations connecting residents to education, work, home and retail centers.

Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow called Friday’s decision great news for Durham and Orange counties.

“The light rail will give our communities an option for a congestion-free commute with predictable travel times and offer direct connections to three hospitals, three major universities and job centers,” said Reckhow, also a GoTriangle board member. “It also will help create thousands of new jobs for our region.” 

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb