Orange County

Work continues on the Durham-Orange light rail, with question mark on federal funding

GoTriangle has completed nearly half of the engineering and design work for the 17.7-mile Durham-Orange light-rail system. The final plan could be submitted later this year to the Federal Transit Administration.
GoTriangle has completed nearly half of the engineering and design work for the 17.7-mile Durham-Orange light-rail system. The final plan could be submitted later this year to the Federal Transit Administration. File photo

There is no Plan B – yet – if the federal government significantly reduces the money available to build the $2.47 billion Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project.

“The fact of the matter is this, we cannot complete the project without a full funding grant agreement from the federal government,” GoTriangle Government Affairs Manager Matthew Clark told the Orange County Board of Commissioners Tuesday night.

Commissioner Earl McKee, a longtime light-rail critic, pressed Clark for details about any alternative plan GoTriangle might be considering. It wouldn’t be up to GoTriangle, Clark said.

Earl McKee
Earl McKee

“That’s one of those times where you’d have to come back together as a board, talk with your colleagues in Durham County, and decide what to do,” Clark said.

The 17.7-mile system is proposed to link 19 stations from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham. The plan is to build it with just over $1.2 billion in federal grants and another $247 million from the state.

Durham and Orange counties would split the other 40 percent of the construction costs – about $738.4 million for Durham County and $149.5 million for Orange County – using a half-cent transit sales tax and car rental and vehicle registration fees. The counties also could share roughly $900 million in interest on loans.

However, all of that hinges on the future of President Donald Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan.

President Donald Trump offered very little information about a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan in his first State of the Union address to Congress on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, in Washington, D.C. Olivier Douliery TNS

A purported White House draft infrastructure plan leaked in January indicated 50 percent of any funding would be set aside for new projects, including transit, but capped each project’s “incentive” at 20 percent of construction costs. Trump has not claimed the plan, but it is in line with last year’s White House 2018 budget plan that proposed using $200 billion in federal infrastructure spending to leverage $800 million in state, local and private spending.

Trump issued a similar call in his recent State of the Union address.

While saying it’s too early to know what will happen, GoTriangle officials and lawmakers point to a bipartisan group in Congress that resisted Trump’s push last year to cut Federal Transit Administration funding for light rail and other projects. They are awaiting details of Trump’s infrastructure plan, expected this month.

So far, Trump hasn’t offered anything except “vague promises and platitudes” on his pledge to advance an infrastructure plan, said Rep. David Price, D-4th District.

David Price
David Price

“The president has publicly called for at least $1.5 trillion in new infrastructure spending, but it appears his proposal may rely overwhelmingly on privatizing public works, slashing existing infrastructure programs to pay for any new federal investment, and shifting most of the cost burden to states and local governments,” Price said. “It’s too early to tell whether the plan that is eventually put forward will affect ongoing projects, but I expect these controversial aspects of the plan to face bipartisan resistance in Congress.”

Meanwhile, GoTriangle officials and an FTA-appointed project management oversight contractor are moving ahead with the light-rail project’s engineering phase. They could have half of the work completed by March, Clark said, and are negotiating with residents to buy land for a future rail operations and maintenance facility between Farrington Road and Interstate 40.

The project’s costs – half of which would be paid only if there’s a federal grant – also are growing. GoTriangle already has paid roughly $30 million for environmental studies, and now has nearly $115 million more invested in engineering, program management and construction management consultant contracts.

The final light-rail plan could be submitted to the FTA this year, with an answer about funding expected by September 2019. Construction could start in 2020 if the project is funded, at which point, the construction management costs would “substantially grow,” Clark said.

Commissioner Earl McKee urged GoTriangle officials to be cautious about buying land before there’s more information about the federal funding.

“Well, thank you for that concern,” Clark said.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Light-rail workshop

A Feb. 20 workshop in Chapel Hill will explore how the light-rail system should look and feel to riders and passersby. GoTriangle wants to hear how the public thinks the system and its stations should reflect Durham and Orange counties’ characters and personalities, culture and history.

The workshop will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. at Extraordinary Ventures, 200 S. Elliott Road in Chapel Hill.

Other news

▪ Sheriff Charles Blackwood updated the commissioners on a pilot test of body-worn cameras for deputies. The sheriff recommended a Motorola Solutions model that addresses legal concerns by mimicking what the human eye sees, including in low-light conditions, and that costs $200,000 less than earlier models. Roughly $300,000 would be included in the Sheriff’s Office budget next year to buy the cameras and five years worth of data storage.

“We are at a good place,” Blackwood said. “The time we spent to vet this particular solution out is going to benefit all of us. I think that when it’s all said and done, the people who will receive the benefit of it are going to be the citizens and the people that we serve.”

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