Orange County

Orange County urges change to state budget to save light rail project

A GoTriangle illustration of a Durham-Orange Light Rail stop.
A GoTriangle illustration of a Durham-Orange Light Rail stop. Contributed

Orange County's commissioners are urging the legislature to revise a provision in last week's budget that could kill the Durham-Orange light rail project.

It's important for the county to take a stand on the budget, which requires light-rail projects to have all other funding in place before asking for state money, Orange County Commissioners Chairman Mark Dorosin said. That provision creates a Catch-22 for the light-rail project, because the federal government won't award funding if local and state money aren't already available.

The Republican-supported budget now is on Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's desk. Cooper could sign the bill into law, veto it, or ignore the bill, which would allow it to become law.

Mark Dorosin 2017
Mark Dorosin

"We are disappointed — after clearing multiple hurdles in an understandable, non-legislative, data-driven process — the N.C. State Legislature has included language in its current budget that would prevent the project from meeting federal guidelines and effectively terminate the project," Dorosin read from the statement.

"The intent of the legislation appears to be that no state funds are spent before federal funds are granted, which is a reasonable requirement on behalf of the taxpayers of our state," he continued. "Our hope is that the wording is changed in the technical corrections bill to the budget to clearly state that intent."

A technical corrections bill has been discussed but has not been submitted yet. Meanwhile, over half of the engineering work for the light-rail project is finished, and it could be submitted for the Federal Transit Administration's 2019-20 budget.

GoTriangle officials have said the $2.47 billion project won't be built without roughly $1.23 billion in federal funding and up to $247 million in state funding. Durham and Orange counties, along with public and private donors, are expected to pay the rest.

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Durham County, Orange County and GoTriangle would meet within 15 days if either state or federal money doesn't come through to discuss their options. Orange County will only pay its $149.5 million share outlined in a 2017 cost-sharing agreement, Dorosin said.

Durham County has agreed to pay $738.4 million in construction costs.

"As we consider the prospect of having to rework the cost-share agreement, we want to reassure the residents of Orange County that we remain committed to this," Dorosin said.

The local shares do not include an estimated $830 million in debt financing, which GoTriangle also would pay from local transit funding: a half-cent sales tax and vehicle registration and car rental fees.

Earl McKee
Earl McKee submitted

Before voting with the board Tuesday, Commissioner Earl McKee said he was disappointed that Orange County didn't push for the unilateral ability to opt out of the cost-sharing agreement. The partners now have to go through several steps to resolve disputes, including mediation and arbitration.

"There may be opt-out provisions under narrow circumstances," McKee said, "but they are very narrowly construed and it would be very difficult and very uncertain that we would not encounter opposition, even to the point of being sued by Durham and GoTriangle should we exercise them unilaterally."

Dorosin and Commissioner Mark Marcoplos, who serves on GoTriangle's Board of Directors, will meet with GoTriangle officials this week. They will talk about the state budget and other issues, Dorosin said, including a suggestion from McKee that GoTriangle update the commissioners every month on the transit plan instead of every quarter.

The full board will meet June 21 with the Durham County Board of Commissioners and GoTriangle. That meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. in the Durham County Admin Complex, 200 E. Main St. in Durham.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb
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