Work Continuing on Durham-Orange County Light Rail Amid Budgetary Concerns

GoTriangle is continuing working with local universities, health care institutions, government and the private sector to continue its plans for a Light Rail that would potentially travel between Durham and Orange Counties – even while budgetary concerns remain due to a cap on light rail spending put in place by the General Assembly.

After receiving feedback from these partners on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the organization is researching the possibility of connecting the line to North Carolina Central University. According to preliminary research by GoTriangle, officials say it could be the busiest light rail stop in Durham.

Acting NCCU Chancellor Johnson O. Akinleye said in a release, “North Carolina Central University is an enthusiastic partner of GoTriangle. The possibility of connecting the light rail line to NCCU is an exciting and viable refinement to the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project.”

The project is expected to cost about $1.6 billion – 50 percent would come from the federal government, 25 percent from a local sales tax and the remaining 25 percent would come from the state.

But that state funding has been brought into question in recent years. The legislature put a $500,000 cap on light rail funding coming from the state in 2015. That $500,000 cap was repealed in this year’s budget amendment, but it was replaced by a new cap of 10 percent of the project’s overall cost.

But GoTriangle says with the support of anyone and everyone in Orange and Durham Counties, they’re hoping to develop a new plan to fully fund the project.

Meyer: HB2 Changes Just ‘Political Ploy’ That Won’t Fix Issues

The North Carolina General Assembly is coming down the home stretch of the short legislative session hoping to be finish up the remaining legislation to bring the session to a close before the July 4 weekend.

Local House Representative Graig Meyer said in an interview Wednesday afternoon that “the final week of a legislative session is always rushed.”

He added, “The fact that we’re coming up on the Fourth of July weekend is adding some pressure, both in terms of people wanting to be done so that we can go home for the holiday and not have to come back but also because it’s going to be a good time to run bad legislation because it will be a really dead media cycle.

“And so I think there’s a number of things moving with the hope that some stuff can get done by Friday and not receive a whole lot of press attention.”

Meyer on rumored changes coming to HB2:

We know that the governor was here today to meet with all of the Republicans in the legislature and to talk about a possible second approach to House Bill 2. But we also know that they have not engaged with Equality North Carolina nor with Democratic leadership.

And so they’re not really going to move forward with anything that would repeal House Bill 2 or create additional discrimination protections for gender identity or sexual orientation.

So whatever they come out with is going to be a carefully crafted political ploy to try and make it look like they fixed the problem without actually providing any type of real discrimination protections.

Meyer on HB100:

Right now, that anti-immigrant bill does not seem to be at the top of the list of priorities for the House. And my hope is that we will take care of the top priorities and finish up and adjourn without House Bill 100 ever coming back to us for a concurrence vote and we can just let it die with the end of session.

Meyer on the light rail spending cap:

That’s going to be set in stone for this budget. We’re not going to be able to defeat the budget and, at this point in the process, there’s no way to amend that.

I think what that provision shows, in part, is that the light rail project is a very expensive project. There’s no way to get around that. And if it is going to move forward, it’s going to require significant financial commitment from the General Assembly. And clearly there is hesitance in the General Assembly to provide that level of support. And this is one way to signal that the money that would be necessary is not likely to be forthcoming with the current legislative leadership.

That can raise some questions about leadership and what’s the direction of the General Assembly and the extent to which it would support a public transportation project like that. But it also means that our local leaders are going to have to have some hard conversations about what type of transportation projects do we want to fund with the funding that we have available if we’re not going to get the money that will be required from the General Assembly for a light rail project. Maybe there’s ways to open that up and think about, ‘Are there other solutions that could meet the needs of the community besides the light rail?’


Meyer said he was concerned with other items in the budget, including provisions regarding water quality in Jordan Lake.

Meyer said the Republicans were touting the raises that will be given to teachers in North Carolina, but he said the budget has additional cuts to the UNC System and Department of Public Instruction.

“They managed to get a raise for teachers by nickel-and-diming everything else in schools,” Meyer said.

Meyer said his other major concern was proposed legislation regulating coal ash cleanup in North Carolina.

You can listen to the full interview with Meyer below:

North Carolina Budget Proposal Includes 10 Percent Cap on Light Rail Spending

While the $500,000 cap on light rail spending that was mysteriously placed in the state budget last year has been removed from this year’s spending proposal, it has been replaced by another cap.

The newly-agreed-to budget that was released late Monday includes a provision that caps state funding on light rail projects at 10 percent of the overall project cost.

The initial House budget proposal lifted the spending cap entirely, but the Senate included the 10 percent cap in its plan, which ultimately made its way into the final proposal.

That directly impacts the Durham – Orange Light Rail Project, which has a projected cost of $1.6 billion with 25 percent of that funding projected to come from the state.

While GoTriangle had been “optimistic” the cap would be removed, it’s unclear what its placement in the budget means for the overall viability of the 17-mile project that would connect Durham and Chapel Hill.

GoTriangle general manager Jeff Mann released the following statement on the cap:

“We are disappointed by the new, restrictive light rail and commuter rail provisions inserted this legislative session that compromise the integrity of the data-driven transportation funding law passed in 2013, and create new funding and delivery challenges for the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project (DOLRT). The DOLRT project is critical transportation infrastructure that will move about 23-thousand people a day along a heavily congested 17-mile corridor, while creating thousands of new jobs and adding $175 Million in annual state and local tax revenue.

GoTriangle is currently evaluating all options and we will continue working with Durham and Orange County residents, our partners and the General Assembly to identify funding for the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project. We appreciate the hard work of our many project supporters, who understand that the DOLRT project will better connect all neighborhoods in the corridor to education; healthcare, including the Veterans hospital; and jobs, including direct access to three of the state’s top ten employers.”

The two North Carolina Congressional representatives who serve the districts that would house the light rail line – Democrats David Price and G.K. Butterfield – released the following statement over the spending cap:

“We are deeply disappointed that the Republican General Assembly leadership is once again standing in the way improving and increasing transit options in the Triangle. The Triangle’s rapid growth increases demand on our region’s transportation infrastructure and has prompted residents of Durham and Orange Counties to vote in support of new transit alternatives that will make it easier to get to work, to school, or to hospitals and other health care facilities. By reneging on the state’s commitment to transit in the Triangle, the Republican General Assembly threatens to forgo billions in federal funding, undercuts the will of Triangle residents, and undermines the rigorous cost-benefit analysis that is the basis for the project. Once again our state’s Republican leaders are leaving North Carolinians worse off because of their narrow-minded political motivations.”

The budget proposal will be voted on in the House and Senate in the coming days before going to the governor’s desk.

GoTriangle ‘Optimistic’ Light Rail Funding Will Be Restored After Surprise Alternate Cap from Senate

The Durham – Orange Light Rail project may not be out of the woods quite yet under the budget proposals from the North Carolina legislature.

The 17-mile rail proposal has an estimated price tag of nearly $1.6 billion and would be funded at 50 percent with federal dollars, 25 percent from the state and 25 percent locally.

The local funding is slated to come from a sales tax increase approved years ago by Durham and Orange County voters. The project had received initial approval for $138 million from the state and the project’s operator – GoTriangle – was working on securing federal funding.

Then last year’s state budget included a $500,000 cap on light rail spending very late in the proceedings. Mecklenburg County Republican William Brawley said during a committee meeting in May that had the cap been introduced prior to the end of the session, it likely would not have been implemented.

“Let’s be candid guys,” Brawley said, “in September, we would’ve swallowed a lot of bitter pills to get out of town.”

That cap was removed in this year’s House budget proposal. The Senate initially voted to remove the cap also, but the final Senate budget included a cap on light rail spending at 10 percent of the project’s total cost – much less than the 25 percent that would be needed for the project to go forward.

But the cap isn’t dampening the spirit of GoTriangle.

“We are optimistic that the remaining budget language will be adjusted to be able to protect the integrity of the Strategic Transportation Investment law and allow us to continue securing the federal funding that’s needed to deliver these projects that will help relieve congestion and better connect people to jobs, education, health care and other services throughout the area,” spokesperson Mike Charbonneau said.

While remaining optimistic, Charbonneau did say the organization is “concerned” about the newly proposed percentage cap in the Senate budget proposal “that could potentially put us in challenging situations, both from a timing and financial standpoint, to be able to fully implement the Durham-Orange Light Rail project efficiently and on time.”

Charbonneau said, “We’re at a stage where we’re ready to award contracts to begin the design and planning phase.”

It is important to be able to show that the design work is moving forward, Charbonneau said, in order to secure the necessary federal funding in the President’s 2017 budget proposal.

“The timeline we’re really working on is to be able to continue moving forward with those contracts, get the design work done and be able to show that we have a solid financial plan between local, federal and state moving forward in order to make that 2017 mark and be able to have those full federal funds secured by 2019,” Charbonneau said.

Local House Representative Graig Meyer previously told WCHL that he believed the light rail spending cap would, in some form, be a negotiating tool for the Senate in this year’s budget discussions.

Governor Pat McCrory said this week that he wants to see the funding restored for the light rail proposal as a final budget in negotiated, according to the News & Observer.

If the spending cap is lifted, the current plan calls for construction to begin in 2019 with operation beginning in 2026.

House Budget Clears Path for Durham-Orange Light Rail

As part of the $22 billion budget proposal that has made its way through the North Carolina House, the cap on light rail spending that was put in place at the end of the long legislative session last year has been removed.

The budget passed its third reading in the House on Thursday by a 103-12 margin and now awaits action in the state Senate.

When the House Transportation Committee was discussing removing the $500,000 spending cap on light rail projects earlier this month, it was clear there were still questions over how or why the cap was put in place at all. It was viewed as a “project killer” for the Durham-Orange Light Rail proposal, which will rely on 25 percent of the funding for the $1.6 billion project to come from the state.

The House also passed legislation to remove the cap last year, but it was not discussed in the Senate.

The House budget includes a two percent pay raise for most state employees and a salary bump for teachers that averages around four percent. The bulk of teacher raises is targeted to those in the middle of their teaching careers.

The full Senate will be back in session on Monday.

Durham – Orange Light Rail Could See New Life

Based off of discussion in a House Transportation Committee meeting on Tuesday, lawmakers are still unsure how or why a $500,000 spending cap on light rail projects was included in the budget at the end of an extraordinarily-long legislative session last year.

Mecklenburg County Republican William Brawley said during the committee meeting had the cap been introduced prior to the end of the session, it likely would not have been implemented.

“Let’s be candid guys,” Brawley said, “in September, we would’ve swallowed a lot of bitter pills to get out of town.”

The item is of local interest because it was initially described as a “project killer” for the Orange – Durham Light Rail project. The $1.6 billion estimated cost of the light rail line is being split between local, state and federal dollars. The federal government would ultimately be asked to pay half of the overall cost with the remaining funding being split between the local and state levels. The local 25 percent would be funded through a sales tax increase approved by the vote of Orange and Durham County residents.

Wake County Republican Nelson Dollar said “it was bad policy when it was done last year, and I appreciate the opportunity to fix it this year.”

But not all members of the committee shared the enthusiasm to repeal the cap.

“I think we’re opening the door to the possibility of taking transportation moneys that could be better used some place else in the state for a light rail project,” said Onslow Republican George Cleveland.

The project was one of the first to go through a data-driven process as part of the Strategic Transportation Investments law passed by the General Assembly in 2013.

“The idea was to make decisions on funding based on data and local input after open hearings,” Brawley said. “It was to take out of transportation funding the idea that we decide up here how all the money’s spent based on who can get the most votes.”

Granville and Person County Republican Representative Larry Yarborough, who was elected in 2014, said he had not seen the data that supported the light rail project.

“I haven’t seen any data here that supports the concept of light rail,” Yarborough said. “Everything I know about it is that it’s a feel-good proposition that results in a very expensive cost per passenger mile and it benefits a very small area of the state.

“I know the people in my district would not benefit from a light rail built somewhere else.”

Brawley said that rejecting the data collected to allocate transportation dollars and reverting back to picking and choosing which projects to fund would be a negative for the state as a whole.

“If we leave this in primarily to kill a particular project in Durham and Orange Counties, what we’re really saying is we’re going to go back to, ‘We’re going to fund the roads we want, whenever we want to fund them. And we’re not going to worry about data, and we’re not going to worry about how we spend our money based upon what is the most bang for the buck for the citizens of North Carolina for every dollar we spend.’”

The bill passed through the committee and is now scheduled to be heard in the House Appropriations Committee. Several members of the Senate, meanwhile, have introduced an identical bill to repeal the light rail cap.

Different Views Remain on Light Rail Project

Construction on the Durham-Orange Light Rail won’t start until 2019, and service isn’t expected to begin until 2025, but it’s already a contentious issue.

Transit officials and community members discussed the development of the project at Tuesday’s WCHL Community Forum.

The 17-mile light rail line will run from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to the Duke and VA Hospitals in Durham.

The project is expected to cost about $1.5 billion, 50 percent will come from the federal government, 25 percent will come from a local sales tax and the remaining 25 percent would come from the state.

Last year the legislature put a cap of $500,000 on light-rail, which effectively halted the project.

Patrick McDonough, manager of planning for GoTriangle, said they were working to get the cap removed. McDonough said he believes a House Committee will recommend removing the cap to the rest of the General Assembly soon.

“We are confident that there is a chance to address the cap to get it removed,” said McDonough.

Alex Cabanes, a community activist, is against the light rail and is instead advocating for a new bus system.

“Light rail might not be the best solution for our particular environment and things like BRT, or bus rapid transit, would potentially be more compelling for the area,” said Cabanes.

Bus Rapid Transit involves building dedicated lanes, so buses can travel unobstructed by traffic.

Chapel Hill council Member Ed Harrison, said the light rail trains would simply have more capacity than buses.

“Any bus we know in the world can safety carry no more than 100 people. A rail vehicle, that by the way last two and half times as long as a bus very likely, I believe it’s up to 500 people,” said Harrison.

Chapel Hill is considering a Bus Rapid Transit system in the North South Corridor, along Martin Luther King Boulevard, but not as a substitute for the light rail system.

Harrison said the Bus Rapid Transit system would still be a major reconstruction project for the town.

Patrick McDonough said the light rail would be integrated with the local bus and sidewalk systems, to allow people to travel easily around the area.

“We’ve set aside money in the Durham County bus and rail investment plan and the Orange County plans to try to deliver those bus and sidewalk projects as effectively as we can,” said McDonough.

Progress on Durham Orange Light Rail Project

The Durham-Orange Light Rail Project is moving forward after the federal government completed its environmental review.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement was approved by the Federal Transit Authority on February 11. That statement addressed concerns from the public after a draft was released last fall. Jeff Mann, the general manager at GoTriangle, said they received 1,400 comments during that time.

The 17-mile light rail line will run from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke and VA Hospitals in Durham.

The project is expected to cost about $1.5 billion, 50 percent will come from the federal government, 25 percent will come from a local sales tax and the remaining 25 percent would come from the state.

But last year the legislature put a cap of $500,000 on light-rail projects. Mann said he hopes legislators will lift that cap during their next session.

“We are working diligently with our partners and supporters to work with members of the general assembly and with the support of NC DOT and the administration has been very supportive of the efforts to remove that cap in the upcoming short session,” said Mann.

The state Department of Transportation had previously allotted $138 million to the Durham-Orange Light Rail under a 2013 bill that allocated transportation funds based on data and local input.

While state funding for the project is still an issue, Mann said they will continue to move the light rail forward.

“We are not slowing down; we continue to think that the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project is the right transit solution for the corridor,” said Mann.

Some oppose the light rail project, instead favoring a bus rapid transit system that would create dedicated bus lanes for faster travel.

The light rail has been in project develop phase. Mann said the project will now enter an engineering phase for the next three years.

“It’s a very large project so we don’t want that to slip in any way and we will continue to drive forward just as we have been,” said Mann.

Construction is expected to begin in 2019 with service starting in late 2025 or 2026.

Estes Drive, Light Rail, BRT On Town Transportation Agenda

Interested in biking? walking? busing? light railing? just getting around in general?

Next week, the Town of Chapel Hill is holding a pair of public meetings on the future of local transportation.

The first will be on Tuesday, February 9, from 5-7 pm in the first floor conference room of Town Hall. It’ll be a “drop-in” session (you don’t have to be there for the full two hours) to gather public feedback on a trio of proposals for new bike lanes and multi-use paths along Estes Drive from MLK to Caswell, to make biking and walking safer and easier. The Estes Drive project grew out of the Chapel Hill Bike Plan and the Central West Small Area Plan; it will be a $2.3 million construction project, with most of the money coming from federal funding. (Town planners are gathering feedback to develop a final proposal for the Chapel Hill Town Council, with a vote planned sometime before the Council breaks for the summer. Construction itself is slated to begin later this year.)

Get more info on the meeting, including a look at the three alternative designs for Estes Drive.

The town is also holding a meeting on Wednesday, February 10, on various topics related to public transit including buses, bus rapid transit, the ongoing North-South corridor study, and the future of light rail. This meeting will take place in Town Council chambers (also in Town Hall) from 7-9 pm. The town’s Transportation and Connectivity Advisory Board is hosting the meeting; board members will use public feedback to provide future recommendations to the Town Council.

Chapel Hill Long Range and Transportation Planning Manager David Bonk discussed both meetings this week with WCHL’s Aaron Keck.

What’s Left After the General Assembly Went Home

The North Carolina General Assembly has wrapped up one of the longest legislative sessions in recent memory.

Municipalities’ ability to make decisions specifically impacting their communities, public school funding being diverted to charter schools, light rail spending, status of sanctuary cities, and the discreteness of the search for the next UNC system president were all up for debate in the whirlwind of action over the final few days of the legislative session.

Local Government Control: Senate Bill 279

A piece of legislation was introduced on the final day of the legislative session that proposed restrictions on local governments, before flaming out in spectacular fashion.

The changes were introduced as part of an unrelated bill that started out in an attempt to address qualifications of sexual education experts to approve sex ed curricula in school districts across the state. Throughout the intense debate on Tuesday, social media lit up with protests over the surprise amendment. LGBT advocates argued the move was aimed at reversing decisions by some municipalities extending discrimination laws to cover sexual orientation.

After being voted down by the House Rules Committee, a previous version of the bill – without the restrictive language – was passed by the Senate.

Charter School Funding: House Bill 539

Another piece of controversial legislation was also stopped in committee Tuesday night. The bill would have shifted some traditional public school funding to charter schools.

Public schools already split funding with charter schools based on enrollment numbers, but the new proposal would have taken money from pots previously reserved for public schools and diverted it to charters across the state.

Supporters say the bill would just provide equal funding to charter schools. Opponents argued against allowing charter schools to split funding for nutritional meals and transportation with public schools, because charter schools are not required to provide the same food and transportation services as traditional schools.

The bill could be brought back up in the short session next year.

Lawmakers said they wanted more time to evaluate charter school needs.

Light Rail Spending Amendment of Revenue Law Changes: Senate Bill 605

The House had voted earlier in the week to pass an amendment that would have removed the $500,000 spending cap on light rail.

The cap was originally placed in the state budget with no discussion beforehand.

Some have called the cap a “project killer” for the Durham – Orange Light Rail project, because the 17-mile light rail proposal is counting on 25 percent of the funding to come from state dollars.

The Senate sent the amended legislation to committee, where it will stay until at least next April.

The legislation to remove the cap could be reevaluated next session.

Sanctuary Cities: House Bill 318

Legislation is heading to Governor Pat McCrory that would ban sanctuary city policies, similar to what Chapel Hill and Carrboro have in place, from being adopted in the future.

This places the status in our community in limbo with several jurisdictional questions left to be answered, likely through litigation.

Protestors delivered letters to Mcrory on Wednesday asking him to veto the legislation. Another protest was held on the UNC campus on Thursday.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt spoke with WCHL’s Blake Hodge about the proposal earlier in the week before it was passed. Listen below:

UNC President Search: Senate Bill 670

Finally, term limits have been placed for members to serve on the UNC Board of Governors, who will now only be able to serve three four-year terms on the 32-member board.

An amendment on the bill had called for a public meeting with the final three candidates for the president of the 17-campus UNC System.

That proposal was removed before the bill was finally passed to the governor.

Now the dozens of pieces of legislation that were nailed down in a fast-paced few hours await the signature of Governor Pat McCrory to become the law of the land.