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Durham Mayor Confident In Light Rail Despite Hesitation From Duke University

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

Durham Mayor Steve Schewel says he's confident the Durham-Orange light rail project will move forward. That comes despite hesitation from Duke University President Vincent Price to commit land needed for the project. Price has voiced concerns this week about the potential impact the rail line’s construction could have on Duke’s campus.

Durham city and county officials met with Price Tuesday to discuss his concerns about plans for the light rail, which would run along -- and at times into -- the Duke University campus. Price outlined those concerns in aletter to Durham Mayor Steve Schewel and Chair of Durham County Board of Commissioners Wendy Jacobs. Price asked for assurance that rail construction would not interrupt critical operations at Duke Hospital or the University.

Here is Price’s full list of concerns, excerpted from his letter:

  • The closing of Blackwell Street and access to the American Tobacco Campus, DPAC and neighboring locations;
  • Making certain that access to the Duke Hospital Level I Trauma Center remains unimpeded for all emergency vehicles at all times;
  • Minimizing disruptions during the construction process and maintaining complete access to Trent Drive and other essential patient transit and access points;
  • Ensuring the continuity and safety of research and clinical activities that take place in buildings adjacent to the planned rail line;
  • Guaranteeing the electric power supply for Duke University and its medical facilities.

Schewel says he believes the project can meet all those requests to secure an agreement with Duke to commit land to the project.
“Duke is a critically important partner in this, and we need to work as hard as we can to satisfy their needs,” Schewel said.

The 17.7 mile Durham-Orange light rail line would serve commuters traveling between Chapel Hill and downtown Durham, and would serve Duke University’s campus and hospital.

Schewel told WUNC that the rail line can be elevated to ensure emergency vehicles have uninhibited access to the hospital, and back-up power can be supplied during construction.

State and local funding are in place for the light rail, and Schewel says he's hopeful the project can secure another $1.2 billion in federal funding for capital costs. He describes the project as “top of the list” among transit project across the country seeking federal support, based on the level of funding and planning already achieved.

“I think are prospects are excellent,” Schewel said. “The money is there. If we can jump through our local hurdles and meet our deadlines in terms of these cooperative agreements, we have the $1.2 billion ready for us.”

The project has a December 31st deadline to secure agreements with Duke University and other partners to apply for federal funding.

If everything goes forward according to the plans of GoTriangle Transit and its partners, the light rail could be built and open for use in about ten years.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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