GoTriangle officials are scrambling to try to find a way forward for the Durham – Orange Light Rail Transit project after Duke University might have dealt the final blow to the proposal.
“I’d say we’re on life support. But, until we’ve finished exploring what all of our options are, we can’t say that it’s completely done,” Damon Seils said in a phone interview Thursday morning. Seils is a Carrboro Alderman who also chairs the Durham – Chapel Hill – Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Seils was responding to Duke University announcing on Wednesday that the university would not sign a cooperative agreement with GoTriangle regarding the light rail line that would connect Durham and Chapel Hill. The line – running nearly 18 miles with 19 stops – has been in the planning process for years. Thursday was the deadline for the transit authority to have signed cooperative agreements with entities across the region.
“There’s some feeling that there are still options on the table,” Seils said. “We just have to do the work of figuring out how those would look if we were to take advantage of them.”
At least one Durham City Councilmember suggested Wednesday, before the final word came from Duke, that the project could move forward by using eminent domain to acquire the property.
Duke expressed concerns about the track on Erwin Road and potential impact of construction and the line operation near its hospital facility. Officials from GoTriangle, local municipalities and other stakeholders had been negotiating potential solutions with the university in hopes of reaching an agreement.
“Notwithstanding these many good-faith efforts, it has unfortunately not been possible to complete the extensive and detailed due diligence, by the deadlines imposed by the federal and state governments, that is required to satisfy Duke University’s, legal, ethical and fiduciary responsibilities to ensure the safety of patients, the integrity of research, and continuity of our operations and activities,” university officials wrote in a letter to GoTriangle on Wednesday.
“Those negotiations have all along involved Duke expressing where they thought changes might need to be made to the alignment of the rail and for other issues,” Seils said. “And from my perspective, GoTriangle and those of us on the community partner side of the project have been eager and willing to meet those needs, to address those concerns. And have done so at very great expense.
“There are some pretty significant changes to the design of the project that we proposed to meet Duke’s needs. And it appears that didn’t get us anywhere.”
A recent report from GoTriangle, detailed in the News & Observer, showed years of communications between Duke and the transit organization discussing the light rail project.
Seils said it was his impression that the goalposts continued to be moved by Duke University during the negotiations.
“They were not consistent,” Seils said.
He added, “While we were able to resolve questions as they came up from Duke, those questions often changed and the issues that Duke administrators and other staff raised changed.
“So, I think it’s become a frustrating process for many of us, but we stuck with it because we felt like it was important to have Duke on board, we felt like it was important to move forward as if we had a partner operating in good faith and also because we felt and still feel that this is a vitally important project for the region.”
Letters show Duke University officials “enthusiastically” supporting the light rail proposal in 2012 and 2013. A 2015 letter from Duke also said the LaSalle station on Erwin Road “will benefit the Duke community.”
Chair of the Orange County Commissioners Penny Rich also expressed frustration Wednesday speaking on WCHL’s The Aaron Keck Show after the announcement was made by GoTriangle that Duke was not going to sign a cooperative agreement.
“We have invested a tremendous amount of money,” Rich said. “And for Duke not to recognize that and not to care about that and not to be concerned that we’ve taken taxpayer dollars to invest in this because we believed in the project, because the [Federal Transit Authority] believed in the project.”
GoTriangle spokesperson Mike Charbonneau said in an email Thursday that “more than $130 million in local taxpayer funds have been invested in the light rail through December 2018.”
That funding has moved the project through engineering and some design work to allow the project to be ready for construction by the end of 2019, had the funding pieces come together.
“About 50 percent of those funds are eligible for federal reimbursement only if the project receives a Full Funding Grant Agreement from the FTA,” Charbonneau said.
Voters in Orange and Durham counties approved transit-dedicated half-cent sales taxes in 2011 and 2012 that has contributed local funding to the project.
The capital cost for the light rail line is estimated at $2.47 billion; the total cost grows to more than $3.3 billion when financing was included.
The federal government was expected to fund half of the capital costs, if the project was meeting benchmarks along the way.
The ballooning cost of the project and concerns from some in the community that GoTriangle was not being as transparent and forthcoming as they should be caused some across Orange and Durham counties to grow to oppose the project. And some were against the project from the beginning, saying that they felt increased bus service in the region would serve the purpose of moving commuters between the served areas at a lower initial cost. Light rail advocates say that the growth of the region requires the long-range planning associated with light rail and that the long-term cost of the light rail line would be lower than the continued maintenance required for the number of buses needed to transport the same number of commuters.
Seils said the light rail line was the “first major piece” of the regional public transit vision that would have included additional bus service.
“Without that project, we will have to go back and think about what that system looks like,” he said. “It’s hard to say. This is something that we’ve been working on with our colleagues in Durham and Wake [counties] for many years. And to have it potentially pulled away from us is a pretty big hit in regional transit planning.”
This is not the first time the project has appeared to reach its end before construction could begin. The North Carolina General Assembly has passed varying funding mechanisms that would have essentially halted the project at different times over the past three years, including at one time putting a $500,000 cap on state funding for light rail projects. Each time a slight fix has been enacted to allow the project to continue to breathe.
“In the end, we have been fighting for this project, primarily in the face of assaults from the General Assembly,” Seils said. “And we made it this far after getting through a couple of pretty heavy rounds of fighting with the General Assembly. To be put in this position by Duke University is incredibly disappointing, given all the work that the communities have put into this project.
“But we’re not done yet.”