GoTriangle officials told Orange County Commissioners on Tuesday night that the organization was so close to completing the engineering phase of the Durham – Orange Light Rail Transit project that construction beginning to move private utilities could being late this calendar year, before picking up in earnest in 2020. But that is assuming the light rail is still an option later this year.

Plans years-in-the-making were jeopardized in late February when Duke University announced it would not sign a cooperative agreement with GoTriangle, one of several such agreements that needed to be in place to allow the project to move forward.

Duke officials expressed concerns about Electromagnetic Interference and vibrations from the construction and operation of the light rail line along Erwin Road near the Duke Hospitals campus.

GoTriangle’s interim project director for the light rail line John Tallmadge spoke to the Orange County commissioners providing an update on the plan at a work session.

“So, that puts us in a place where we have to evaluate options for moving forward without a cooperative agreement, and we are still exploring those options,” Tallmadge said. “We have attorneys – our attorneys are working with us, we’re requesting outside counsel assistance – and consulting with the Federal Transit Administration about options to proceed without that cooperative agreement.”

The Duke decision is just one hurdle the light rail line would need to clear before becoming reality. Tallmadge detailed design changes in downtown Durham, inflation adjustments and contingency funds that further increased the budget.

“You add those up, and that’s $237 million in addition to the budget in year of expenditure dollars.”

Tallmadge added that private fundraising for the project had raised around $15 million to date, well short of its stated goal. He said there was corporate interest in naming rights to the line and stations, but that was slowed because of concerns that the line might not move forward at all.

“The indication that I’m getting from our fundraiser is that the corporations – because they actually have to show these commitments on their books even before they give the money – need to know that the project is going to go forward and be completed,” Tallmadge said. “And so, as we take the steps that are necessary to get there, our fundraiser believes that is going to be the signal that they need in order to make those financial commitments.”

That private fundraising gap would require a “backstop” in order to have the financial pieces in place, if the organization were to move forward with its full funding application to the Federal Transit Administration. The backstop would need a local government agency – presumably the City and County of Durham in this case – to front money that would then not be needed if private fundraising picked up.

The FTA is expected to pick up half of the roughly $2.5 billion capital cost of the project. The total cost of the light rail line grows to more then $3.3 billion when financing is included.

Tallmadge said an update to the Orange County Transit Plan and cost-sharing agreement would be needed for the project to move forward. And county commissioners reiterated that the county would not be committing more than the previously noted $149.5 million for the project’s capital cost. Tallmadge said that GoTriangle had secured a lower interest rate than was initially expected, and that Orange County’s financing payments could come in below what was budgeted in the 2017 transit plan.

But that is all contingent on the transit organization finding a way forward for the project at all amid Duke’s concerns.

Tallmadge said that Duke had provided a list of assets individually worth more than $50,000 to GoTriangle, which had a consultant who specializes in EMI mitigation survey the list for potential problems. The results were that one electron microscope was in a building that appears to be close enough to be affected by EMI, according to Tallmadge. He added that estimates to protect that equipment came in at a $40,000 cancelation device.

“If Duke brings forward information about other devices and the location of those in buildings, we’ll have to then assess what needs to be done for those devices,” he said. “But at this point in time, they’re not sharing that information. So, we don’t have any of those steps to take.”

Tallmadge said GoTriangle was looking at all other options available to proceed without a cooperative agreement with Duke. There has been speculation that the transit authority could use eminent domain to procure the land.

But he added that process would start with an appraisal, making a fair-market offer for the land and attempting to work out an agreement with Duke before condemning the land would be considered.

The GoTriangle Board of Trustees had a meeting scheduled for earlier in the day on Tuesday to discuss the latest developments and options, but that meeting was postponed until the last week in March.

Duke rejected an offer to enter mediated negotiations with GoTriangle to work toward a solution for a cooperative agreement.

The local funding pieces have to be in place by an April 30 deadline, according to state law, to allow the funding application to be submitted to the FTA and have that funding secured by the end of November, when the state could allocate a maximum of $190 million for the project.