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Orange County Commissioners Vote to Move Forward with Light Rail Project

Orange County Commissioners Vote to Move Forward with Light Rail Project

After a long night of discussion and debate, the Board of Orange County Commissioners passed a memorandum of understanding that says the county will look into the possibility of paying an additional 40 million dollars over a 10-year period towards the Durham-Orange Light Rail Project. County attorney John Roberts said the memorandum does not require the county to commit any funding at the moment.

“It’s non-binding for the time being,” Roberts said. “If the board agrees to look for additional funding, you’re creating, potentially, an expectation that you will implement that funding. But you are not obligated to implement that at a later date, under this agreement.”

The memorandum passed 5-2, with commissioners Renee Price and Earl McKee dissenting. McKee said he questioned whether the memorandum was actually non-binding.

“If I vote for this, this is a commitment on my honor that I’m going to follow through with it, and I’m not,” McKee said. “So I’m going to vote against it, for that very reason alone.”

The memorandum was required because of a recently-discovered funding gap. The Federal Transit Administration has said it would reimburse 50 percent of the total cost of the project. It was initially expected to pay $125 million per year over an eight-year period, but recently the FTA has decided to give $100 million per year over a 10-year period instead. This, along with decreased funding from the state of North Carolina, has created a $250-million gap that GoTriangle is attempting to fill. GoTriangle general manager Jeff Mann said the next checkpoint for the project will be in April, 2017.

“April, 2017, is where we’ll enter into the engineering phase of the project, if we’re cleared from the Federal Transit Administration to do that,” Mann said. “It’s a checkpoint for us to see – A) if we’re cleared to go into engineering and B) if we have a financial plan that we’re confident in.”

Roberts and commissioners Barry Jacobs both added language to the memorandum meant to further emphasize the county’s lack of requirement to further fund the project. Although supportive of the project, Jacobs said he had a few concerns.

“GoTriangle should be working for us,” Jacobs said. “Instead, it feels like GoTriangle is informing us what we’re doing, and that’s not the way this should work.

“So that needs to be fixed. Whatever else happens, the communication needs to be fixed.”

GoTriangle will also need a memorandum from Durham County. A joint committee with members of Durham’s City Council and county commissioners unanimously voted to bring GoTriangle’s request back to their respective boards. Each board will vote individually on the plan in the coming week.

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