Orange County

Drive to get light rail money delays Chapel Hill, Hillsborough projects. Here’s why.

A bus rapid transit line could travel in dedicated right-hand lanes through the narrower streets in downtown Chapel Hill.
A bus rapid transit line could travel in dedicated right-hand lanes through the narrower streets in downtown Chapel Hill. Contributed

Durham officials used an unusual move recently to remove Chapel Hill’s bus rapid transit (BRT) plans from the queue for state funding to give the $3.3 billion Durham-Orange light rail project a better shot.

The move was similar to what Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization officials did a few weeks ago in removing Wake County’s bus rapid transit project from the state process. The light-rail project, now in the engineering phase, needs $1.2 billion in federal dollars and up to $247 million from the state. The remaining costs, including interest on loans, would be split between Orange and Durham counties.

State funding is inadequate to accommodate North Carolina’s growing transportation needs, Durham County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs said. The concern was that without 10 percent funding from the state, it could kill light rail, she said, and while BRT is important for Chapel Hill, everyone had to make sacrifices.

“It’s part of the overall network that we’re creating between all three of our counties ... but if we don’t get this basic rail infrastructure, the spine down, we can’t move forward with all the other pieces,” Jacobs said.

Chapel Hill Transit director Brian Litchfield said the decision shouldn’t negatively affect the North-South BRT project. The MPO supports BRT, he said, but if the project scored well in the state funding process, it wouldn’t guarantee any money but could lower the light-rail project’s maximum score.

What made last week’s decision interesting was how Durham used a rare voting method to overcome Orange and Chatham County opposition to removing projects from the state’s Strategic Transportation Prioritization, or SPOT 5.0, funding process. Chapel Hill could resubmit the BRT project in a couple of years.

MPO board decisions typically rely on majority vote, but a longstanding agreement allows any member to ask for a weighted vote. The weighted system is based on population and gives the city of Durham 16 votes; Durham and Orange counties four votes each; Chapel Hill six votes; and Carrboro, Hillsborough and Chatham County two votes each. GoTriangle and the N.C. Board of Transportation each have one.

So, Durham, with the help of Durham County and GoTriangle, was able to delay the BRT project by a vote of 21-16. The board, in separate, unanimous votes, also delayed regional bus funding requests, including for Orange Public Transportation’s Hillsborough circulator bus and a 10 percent share of the cost for new Chapel Hill Transit buses.

It was the first time he had seen the move used in 10 years of working with the MPO board, Litchfield said. Wendy Jacobs said it was necessary to ensure the light-rail project remained a priority.

Orange County Commissioner Barry Jacobs, who rejected the move, said it followed a “horrible” MPO staff presentation and was based on “highly speculative” reasons. Orange County might talk with UNC Hospitals and Durham Technical Community College, which has a campus in Orange County, about another way to fund the $30,000 Hillsborough circulator expansion, he said.

“The Durham representatives had come with their minds made up that they weren’t going to do anything to risk the light rail, so every other government voted to leave the BRT in ... but Durham invoked the weighted voting,” Barry Jacobs said. They “vowed that we’ll help you find the money, but it’s $12.5 million, so whether it’ll go forward or not, frankly, we don’t know.”

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger was in meetings Friday and deferred calls to Town Council member Michael Parker, who did not return a call.

Litchfield said there is a silver lining for BRT, because there is now more time to work out the details.

The proposed 8.2-mile, high-capacity bus line could run from the Eubanks Road park-and-ride lot near Interstate 40, down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to UNC and Southern Village in Chapel Hill. A work group is now studying how to extend the route to Durham Tech’s Orange County campus in Hillsborough.

The roughly $125 million project is in the engineering analysis and environmental impact review phase of the Federal Transit Administration’s Smart Starts grant program and is on track to begin construction in the early 2020s, Litchfield said.

FTA approval could bring up to 80 percent federal funding, he said, with another $6 million from Orange County sales taxes and vehicle fees. The focus now is finding another $12.5 million in state, private, local and grant sources, Litchfield said, and filling a roughly $30 million local funding gap.

Wendy Jacobs said Durham is dedicated to helping find the money.

“This is part of what it means to work together as a region,” she said. “It means that we’re working together across county lines, because we already have people that are working living and playing in all three counties – Durham, Orange and Wake – and I firmly believe that our futures are tied together.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Herald-Sun reporter Zachery Eanes contributed to this report.

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