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GoTriangle Ends Light Rail Project

An artist's rendering of a light rail stop.
Triangle Transit

The Durham Orange Light Rail project ground to a halt today as the GoTriangle board of trustees voted to discontinue planning for the 18-mile line from Chapel Hill to Durham.

CEO Jeff Mann told the board that rising cost projections, state deadlines, and lack of cooperation from local stakeholders presented unsurmountable obstacles for the project, which has been under development for two decades. Mann read from prepared remarks at the meeting:

The light-rail project has been considered the spine of Durham and Orange counties' transit plans since Durham voters in 2011 and Orange voters in 2012 approved a half-cent sales tax to invest in significant public transit improvements. As we've stated many times, the project would create and support tens of thousands of new jobs and infuse billions of dollars into our local and state economies. The final, approved light-rail alignment connects three of the top 10 employers in the state and three major hospitals as well as UNC, Duke and North Carolina Central University. Over the years, the two counties have used this approved light-rail alignment as a basis for land-use, economic development and affordable housing plans to best accommodate the more than 7,000 people the counties are adding each year. Unfortunately, this project has recently faced a number of significant challenges, most notably Duke University's refusal to sign necessary agreements with GoTriangle.

Duke University last month declined to sign cooperative agreements needed to secure federal funding for the project. Duke officials worried construction vibration and electromagnetic interference from the line would harm sensitive equipment in medical and research facilities along Erwin Road.

North Carolina Railroad company and Norfolk Southern also declined to sign cooperative agreements.

In addition, Project Director John Tallmadge told the board of trustees Wednesday the project faces a $267 million shortfall.

The GoTriangle board will recommend Orange and Durham counties remove the rail line from their transit plans, bringing an end to the process of qualifying for federal dollars.

The vote was unanimous.

Several changes to state law since 2016 brought the anticipated state contribution to the project from 25 percent to 10 percent and eventually down to no more than $190 million, or about 7.7 percent.

In late 2018, the Durham County Board of Commissioners approved spending an additional $57.6 million in voter-approved, transit-designated revenue from Durham County to close part of the gap created by the legislative change. 

The financial plan also anticipated that $102.5 million in light-rail project funding would come from other public and private sources, including property donations through the GoTransit Partners' Capital Campaign. The prolonged and ultimately unfruitful negotiations with Duke University halted those fundraising efforts, according to GoTriangle.

The 2018 legislative change also required that all other nonfederal funds for the project be committed by April 30, and all federal funds no later than Nov. 30, for the light rail to receive any state funding for the project.

Elizabeth Friend grew up in North Carolina listening to public radio in the backseat of the family station wagon. She has been reporting and producing at WUNC since 2016, covering everything from Army history to armadillos. She's also the co-founder of the beloved summer event series Audio Under The Stars. In her spare time she enjoys exploring the outside world with her family, dabbling in esoteric crafts, and cheese.
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