Durham-Orange transit gets a green light

The proposed Durham-Orange light-rail transit may eventually move people across the western Triangle at high speed, but getting there is a slow and tedious process always in danger of being blocked by a change in federal policy or priorities.

Fortunately the process took a strong surge forward last week with a green light from the Federal Transit Administration to move the 17.7-mile light-rail project into the engineering phase. This step will be the last design step. With the blueprint complete, the federal government will decide whether to provide 50 percent of the project’s $2.47 billion cost.

Getting to this point is a milestone worth celebrating. Credit for reaching it belongs in part to GoTriangle, the regional agency that convinced the FTA that it has the technical and management ability to take the project through the $70 million engineering phase. Local, state and federal partners also helped keep the project moving forward.

Plans call for the light rail line to link UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill with Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham. There will be 18 stations along the route.

“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 Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who is also a GoTriangle board member. “It also will help create thousands of new jobs for our region.”

That’s the hope. The challenges ahead include funding approval from the Trump administration. That approval will also require getting the state to agree to provide up to 10 percent of the project’s funding and 40 percent from regional partners.

Those are big funding hurdles – and the uncertain support from the Trump administration and the state legislature make them bigger still. But last week the project reached a key goal and that’s worth celebrating.