Approximately 70 members of the public spoke to the Orange County Board of Commissioners and gave their thoughts on Tuesday night regarding the Durham-Orange Light Rail project, which faces a critical decision in the coming weeks. The commissioners will vote next week on the proposed Orange County Transit Plan.
John Tallmadge, director of regional services development with GoTriangle, said the transit plan well help the project move forward.
“We are awaiting permission from the Federal Transit Administration to enter the engineering phase,” Tallmadge said. “Adoption of these plans and a cost-sharing agreement are part of that needed documentation in order to enter into the engineering phase.”
If the commissioners do not approve the transit plan, the project risks falling out of the New Starts Program, the federal program that will reimburse the project up to 50 percent of the cost. However, the final cost of the project remains unclear, as projections have continued to rise over the past six months.
“In December, I asked a question as to when this project would hit $3 billion. I was assured that it was not anticipated to hit $3 billion,” said Commissioner Earl McKee. “We’re at $3.3 billion. So my only question is, when do we hit $4 billion?”
Questions also arose concerning the risk involved for the county should the project exceed the expected budget. GoTriangle senior financial analyst Mindy Taylor said Orange and Durham counties are not obligated to pick up GoTraingle’s debt.
“All the debt that is contemplated in this plan is the responsibility of GoTriangle, repaid with revenues that flow through GoTriangle,” Taylor said. “There is no legal obligation for the counties to repay GoTriangle’s debt, unless they choose to enter into an agreement to backstop that. But there’s no requirement for them to choose to do that, and that’s not part of the financial plan currently.”
The rising cost was a major concern for members of the public who spoke out against the project.
“So much has been said about the possible variables that could make this picture-perfect plan fall apart,” said county resident Diane Robertson. “Are you willing to gamble Orange County’s future on that much uncertainty?”
For those in favor of the light rail system, the focus was on the benefits. Karen McCall from the UNC School of Medicine said the school is in favor of the plan.
“Light rail will help the Orange County patients who use our services and patients from the other 99 counties that we serve at UNC Health Care,” McCall said.
A non-profit established by GoTriangle has committed to attempt to raise $100 million for the project, should it move forward.
The commissioners will meet again Thursday evening before holding a vote on the transit plan April 27.