Orange County

Could this proposed state bill keep the Durham-Orange light-rail plan on track?

A bill passed Wednesday by the state Senate could remove the roadblock recently put in front of the Durham-Orange light-rail project.

However, the bill's new, $190 million cap on state funding appears to still limit the possibility of the light-rail project moving forward.

Durham Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. spoke Wednesday about working with Republican Senate Leader Phil Berger for over a week to reach consensus, including through a conference call that also included state and federal transportation officials, and GoTriangle General Manager Jeff Mann. It was important to provide solid data about mass transit projects, he said.

Floyd McKissick Jr. submitted photo

"You’re dealing with several issues," he said. "First, you have people who are skeptical of mass transit, don’t believe the light rail system is needed, and are afraid that it would soak up more money than is currently allocated for it. They would rather see some of those funds spent on other transportation infrastructure projects — road projects.”

Durham Sen. Mike Woodard also noted the work that GoTriangle officials, as well as local and business leaders, put in to lobbying lawmakers and sharing information.

"I appreciate the Senate leadership hearing our arguments in favor of light rail, listening to the business case for this, and understanding the unique opportunity to provide this funding for critical transportation needs in the growing Triangle region," he said.

Woodard said a House vote has not been scheduled yet, but he also expects that chamber to approve the bill.

The state's budget that won final approval Tuesday would have required Durham and Orange counties to get all local, private and federal funding before asking the state for light-rail money. It created a Catch-22, because the Federal Transit Administration already requires agencies to get a commitment for all the other money before applying for federal funds.

Mike Woodard.jpg
Mike Woodard

But part of the 28-page technical corrections bill would repeal that clause. The change would let local governments seek state funding for light-rail projects, but they couldn't spend the money until they showed in writing that all other local and private money for a project was secured.

If the state doesn't get written notice by April 30, 2019, the N.C. Department of Transportation would stop funding for the project.

The bill also limits funding for regional commuter rail and light rail projects to 10 percent of the regional transportation allocation or estimated project costs, whichever is less. It specifically caps state funding for the Durham-Orange light-rail project at $190 million.

That means the regional partners would have to fill a $57 million shortfall in the state's expected contribution of $247 million.

Light-rail construction is expected to cost $2.47 billion, plus roughly $830 million in interest on debt payments. The 17.7-mile Durham-Orange light-rail project would connect UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill with Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham.

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Durham, Orange and GoTriangle had planned to use 50 percent federal funding, 10 percent state funding and 40 percent local and private money to pay for the project. GoTriangle officials have said the loss of state or federal funding could stop the project.

The project "is desperately needed for the Triangle," McKissick said, citing the ability for more people to move around without their cars, the links it would create between Durham and Orange counties' major employers, and the effect on the region's livability and desirability for future investment.

“I think it provides it an opportunity to meet the current timeline and allow the project to receive a full funding grant at the end, but there are other issues that have to be overcome along the way," McKissick said. "I’m hopeful that it won’t be some events that will occur that will cause the project to deviate from existing deadlines. That would be problematic.”

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Even if the amount is in question, McKissick said, it's better than the updated budget, which would have cost the project $1.23 billion in federal funding. Woodard agreed, noting that the project has faced challenges before.

"Given where we've been, even just a few days ago ... we are in a better position," Woodard said. "It's going to be a challenge for local elected officials and GoTriangle to figure out that gap in funding, but we've been figuring out gaps like this throughout the life of this project."

Several options for finding the extra $57 million are already available, said Durham County Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs.

The light-rail engineering team has been looking at potential project savings, she said, and a 30 percent contingency for cost overruns is built into the budget. The GoTriangle partners also continue to raise public and private donations, she said.

"But at this point, I am absolutely thrilled about this conference report and hopeful that the House will also approve it and we can get back to work again, making this a successful project," Jacobs said.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb
Lauren Horsch: 919-836-2801, @LaurenHorsch