Transit officials are hoping one last olive branch can get the Durham – Orange Light Rail transit project back on track.
GoTriangle released a letter on Tuesday that was sent to Duke University president Vincent Price on Monday. The letter comes after Duke announced it would not enter into a cooperative agreement with the transit authority to allow the proposed light rail line to move forward.
The decision from Duke University put the transit plan “on life support,” Carrboro Alderman and chair of the Durham – Chapel Hill – Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization Damon Seils said last week.
GoTriangle General Manager Jeff Mann and chair of the organization’s Board of Trustees Ellen Reckhow told Price in Monday’s letter that Duke not signing the cooperative agreement “creates significant challenges for the Light-Rail Project, effectively nullifying two decades of work.”
Duke expressed several concerns when announcing it would not sign the agreement, including potential negative impacts on research being conducted near the Duke Hospital campus on Erwin Road due to Electromagnetic Interference, or EMI, and vibrations from the construction and potential operation of the rail line.
GoTriangle contends the proper time for these concerns to be voiced and addressed was during the Environmental Impact Statement process, “which took place several years ago,” Mann and Reckhow wrote. The two added that “Duke did not submit comments during this critical EIS process.”
GoTriangle also on Tuesday released the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding between the organization and Duke University, which is described as a “non-binding” agreement.
“That agreement committed Duke and GoTriangle to work cooperatively throughout planning, design and implementation. However, when information was requested from Duke in late 2017 and subsequently in 2018 in order to further study the potential for EMI, Duke did not provide the necessary data. Nonetheless, we remain hopeful that we can resolve differences and address Duke’s concerns in such a manner that will allow this important infrastructure to move forward.”
The letter goes on to offer GoTriangle’s counters to Duke’s concerns on EMI, vibrations, potential disruption to power and other utilities, and liability.
Mann and Reckhow concluded the letter by inviting Duke to “enter into mediated negotiations together over the next four to six weeks to resolve remaining issues.”
It is unclear if there is hope for the two sides to reach an agreement before approaching deadlines to have agreements in place needed to apply for federal funding for the project.
The capital cost for the light rail line is estimated at $2.47 billion, although that number has reportedly increased due to recent changes to the project in downtown Durham; the total cost grows to more than $3.3 billion when financing is 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.
Duke did not respond to a request for comment on whether the university would be open to entering mediated negotiations with GoTriangle.