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.

House Votes to Remove Light Rail Spending Cap

***UPDATE: The North Carolina House voted on Monday night to remove the spending cap that was initially placed on light rail spending in the state budget signed earlier this month.

The state Senate is expected to vote on the legislation Tuesday. If passed, the bill would then go to Governor McCrory for his signature. ***

A surprise cap on light-rail projects in the recently signed North Carolina state budget may be short lived, if some lawmakers get their way.

Local Democratic House Representative Graig Meyer says a cloud of mystery is still hanging over the implementation of a $500,000 spending cap on light rail projects in North Carolina, a cap that some have called a “project killer” for the proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail line.

“The Durham and Orange County legislative delegation were concerned about the budget provision that limited spending on light rail,” he says, “because no one in legislative leadership talked to any of us before inserting that into the budget.

“And no one will tell us who inserted it or why.”

Meyer says a proposed amendment has bipartisan support from urban representatives after Wake County Republicans were able to remove language that would place additional caps on Wake County spending.

“Two of the Republicans who were instrumental in removing the Wake County provision were also agreeable to working with our delegation, who are all Democrats, to try and address the Durham and Orange County issue,” he says. “We’re likely going to try and do so on Monday night when that bill moves to the floor for a full vote from the House.”

Meyer says it is too late to make any changes to the budget that was signed earlier this month, but the proposed amendment would nullify the spending cap.

Meyer adds there are multiple reasons some Republicans are joining the local Democrats in the fight to remove the cap.

“One reason is that it changes something that the Republicans put in place last year,” he says, “which was supposed to be a non-political process for identifying how to fund transportation needs. Instead of everything in transportation going to whoever is the most powerful and could get it for their district, to have something that’s actually based on needs and the number people that it would help.

“This starts to unravel that plan, and the people who worked on that plan don’t want to see their idea get chipped away at.”

Meyer says other Republicans are interested in removing the cap because they see it as overreach from state lawmakers into local issues.

The cap has a major influence on the feasibility of the Durham-Orange Light Rail proposal because the $1.6 billion project is counting on 25 percent of the funding coming from the state, with 50 percent coming from federal dollars and the remaining 25 percent from local money raised through the sales tax change implemented in Durham and Orange Counties.

Meyer says he is encouraged to see initial support from some Republican members of the House, but that by no means guarantees the amendment receives the needed support.

“All of this, of course, is contingent upon getting the support of the majority of both chambers,” he says. “And we’re not sure where the Republican leadership will come down on this because they certainly were in favor of the cap that was put in place in the budget.

“They may not be fans of our efforts to try and change that cap.”

Meyer says he has heard from constituents who are against the current light-rail proposal.

“I think that people on both sides of the light rail debate in Orange County have legitimate points,” he says. “I represent rural Orange County for the most part, as well as a little bit of Chapel Hill. And I understand why many of the rural residents are concerned that light rail isn’t going to meet some of their needs.

“And I think there are some legitimate concerns about whether the current light-rail plan is the right plan.”

But Meyer adds details of the plan can be negotiated to find a compromise as long as there is funding from the state.

“In this case, I’m trying to work to undo the budget cap because I feel like the budget cap was a bad piece of policy that was enacted in a bad way,” he says. “And that the concerns that are legitimate about what is going to happen with light rail are ones that can be negotiated through our local elected officials who are part of the team that’s trying to figure out what’s the best way to move forward with public transportation.”

Two public hearings on the current light-rail proposal are scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday.

GoTriangle ‘Still Evaluating’ NCGA’s Light Rail Spending Cap

Jeff Mann is the general manager of GoTriangle, the transit authority that’s been working to build a light rail line from Durham to Chapel Hill. He says the legislature’s cap on spending may not be enough to derail the project.

“We’re still evaluating what the provision would mean to the project,” says Mann. “Obviously it’s a hurdle that we would have to overcome, but we’re still looking at alternatives and evaluating what it means, so I’m not prepared to say now that it’s a project-killing provision, only that we will continue to evaluate funding alternatives and work hard to support the project, because we believe it’s vital to the region.”

Buried in the state budget released this week is a provision that would cap funding for light rail projects at $500,000 dollars per year, far less than the $138 million total transit planners had been expecting.

“[The project] was allotted that funding through the Strategic Transportation Investments Law, which scores projects through a data-driven process,” says Mann. “This cap that has been inserted in the budget would circumvent that process and not allow expenditures of that $138 million except for that small amount.”

Transit officials worry the cut in state funds could also jeopardize federal funding for the $1.6 billon dollar project.

“Projects such as this, that are funded through the Federal Transit Administration, typically are funded in a formula that’s 50 percent federal funding, 25 percent local funding, and 25 percent state funding,” says Mann. “So obviously it’s a concern if we don’t have the matching funds to match the federal 50 percent.”

Just a day before the state budget was released, the Federal Transit Administration awarded GoTriangle $1.7 million to help plan development around light rail stops.

Despite the legislature’s spending cap, Mann says he’s committed to moving forward with the planning process and seeking other sources of funding if necessary.

“We want folks to know that we’re still working for this project. We think it’s the right project for the region. We keep evaluating alternatives for the project to move forward because we think its a vital project.”

The 17-mile light rail line is still in the project development phase. GoTriangle anticipates asking permission from the FTA to enter into the engineering phase early next year.

In the meantime, as transit planners assess their funding options, GoTriangle is preparing to host a series of public hearings on the recently-released environmental impact study that narrows down potential routes through Orange and Durham counties.

For a full list of those meetings, click here.

Light Rail Project Clears Hurdle

The light rail project connecting Chapel Hill and Durham has cleared a major hurdle.

Natalie Murdock is the spokesperson on the project for GoTriangle. She says the Federal Transit Administration signed off on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement last Thursday.

“Essentially, this allows us to go forward and show the public everything that we’ve been working on at a very intense pace,” she says, “taking a four-year process and really trying to whittle that down into two years.”

Murdock says this draft statement focused on potential environmental impacts along the pathway from Chapel Hill to Durham.

“Throughout those 17 miles, we did have a number of environmentally-sensitive areas,” she says. “In this document, you will see our recommendation as to how we can offset some of those environmental impacts.

“And also ways that we can try to avoid impacts to communities and institutions.”

Murdock adds work has narrowed down on the potential path of the tracks.

The funding for the project is coming from local, state, and federal funds. Murdock says that will follow a 25-25-50 format, with 25 percent from the local level through a sales tax increase already approved by Orange and Durham County voters, 25 percent from the North Carolina Department of Transportation, and 50 percent to come from the federal government.

A public comment period will open for 45 days after the formal FTA approval, which is expected on Friday.

Murdock says that will set off the next chain of events on the timeline.

“That final document will be finalized around February 2016,” she says. The final environmental-impact document approval will lead to additional authorization being sought from the FTA regarding engineering. “At that time, if the federal government allows us to proceed with the engineering, then in 2019 we will pursue 50 percent funding from the federal government and begin construction in 2019.”

The public comment period will include two public information sessions and two public hearings. The Friday Center will host an information session on September 15 and a public hearing on September 29.

“We need to hear from the public how they think the project will help their community,” Murdock says, “what concerns they have about how it will impact their community; if they think it will impact their access to work; if it will impact the access that customers will have to a business owner’s business.

“Those are the types of comments that we do need to hear from the public.”

You can view the draft proposal here.

Lavelle, Other Electeds Tour Future Light Rail Line

The light-rail line connecting Durham and Chapel Hill is still more than a decade away from becoming a reality – but planners are already hammering out the details about the specific path that line will trace, and they’re hoping to have some of those questions answered this spring.

With that in mind, about 10 elected officials and other municipal staff – including Carrboro mayor Lydia Lavelle – went on a bus tour earlier this week to trace the proposed line for themselves.

Mayor Lavelle spoke to WCHL’s Aaron Keck about the tour and the proposal on Friday.


Planners are seeking public opinion now about the proposed line – trying to balance the needs of commuters, businesses and residents with a larger concern for protecting environmentally sensitive areas. When it’s completed, the light-rail line will connect Chapel Hill and the UNC campus with Duke University and downtown Durham.

Durham Orange Light Rail Transit Project Map

To learn more about the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project and to offer your feedback and input, visit