Duke abandons community by balking on light rail

Duke University has taken an odd approach to protecting the health of its medical center’s patients. It has decided to do something that could injure the economy and impair the future of its surrounding community.

Those are the likely effects of Duke’s confounding announcement on Wednesday that it will not sign an agreement crucial to the construction of the $3.3 billion Durham-Orange light-rail project. Duke’s decision not to allow use of its land on the Erwin Road corridor adjacent to the university’s medical center effectively throws a log across the tracks of the proposed transit system that could derail years of planning and public investment.

GoTriangle, the regional public transportation authority that is guiding the light-rail project, said of Duke’s announcement: “This is a major setback for the Durham and Orange county communities and the entire Triangle region.”

That may be an understatement. Durham and Orange counties have led the region in stepping up to build an alternative to ever more congested roads. But the light rail project is not simply about convenience. It’s also part of a plan to expand opportunities for low-income workers and create affordable housing around stations on the 17.7-mile light rail line.

Voters have approved local taxes to help fund the transit plan and its supporters have soldiered on despite reduced financial support from the Republican-led General Assembly. Now, on the eve of a federal funding decision that is essential to the project’s construction, Duke has balked over concerns about how the project may affect its medical center. Duke’s lack of support may cause the Federal Transit Administration to reject GoTriangle’s application for $1.23 billion in federal funding.

Duke’s action is wrong on two levels. First, it’s a last-minute objection that denied GoTriangle adequate time to respond. It’s bad faith on Duke’s part to raise a major and perhaps project-ending objection just as federal funding is about to fall into place.

Secondly, Duke’s reasons ring hollow. In a letter to GoTriangle, Duke’s leaders cited the “unresolved challenges” that led to their decision. Those include electromagnetic interference from the light rail line that could affect medical devices, construction vibrations that could affect surgery, potential power disruptions and liability issues. These concerns are largely hypothetical and, to the extent that they are legitimate, can be addressed.

Many of the nation’s leading medical centers are located in intense urban areas such as Chicago, Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Those hospitals function safely and well despite rumbling trains and subways and major construction projects — sometimes their own — nearby. This isn’t about patient safety. It’s about a rich private university that doesn’t want its harvest of health care dollars inconvenienced by a major improvement in the region’s infrastructure.

Local leaders should remind Duke that the public’s interest matters most. Using eminent domain should be considered. Unfortunately, that looks like the only option Duke has left to the community it abandoned.