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'Tremendous Disappointment,' Transit Officials React To The Loss Of Light Rail

Light rail transit with Amtrak visualization of area near Durham Station Transportation Center.
Go Triangle

After the GoTriangle board of trustees put a stop to the proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail project on Wednesday, local elected officials mourned the demise of the line that was supposed to link the two counties.

"Nobody's feeling good about it. It's just a tremendous disappointment for our region," said Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. "(It's) just an enormous disappointment and there's no sugar coating that. We have $1.25 billion dollars in federal money that we're giving up."

Schewel and his fellow GoTriangle board members voted unanimously to recommend Orange and Durham Counties stop planning for the nearly 18-mile rail line, which would halt the process of qualifying for federal dollars.

The project, which had been in the works for more than two decades, was touted as a way to link UNC-Chapel Hill with Duke University, Duke Hospitals, the Durham Veterans Administration, and N.C. Central University.

But the $2.5 billion dollar rail line came to a halt as planners found themselves pinched between state deadlines, rising costs, and a lack of cooperation among key partners.

"It is unprecedented - and I want to emphasize unprecedented - for the state to have put time deadlines on our project. I can't think of another project that has had such time deadlines." -Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow.

Last month, Duke, Norfolk Southern, and the North Carolina Railroad company declined to sign land-sharing agreements necessary to keep the project eligible for federal funding.

Orange County Commissioner Mark Marcoplos said GoTriangle explored the option of seizing land from Duke through eminent domain, but ultimately found it unworkable.

"It was going to take two years and likely end up in superior court," he said. "Meanwhile we're trying to work with Duke, and that just became untenable."

The five-week government shutdown postponed the release of a new risk assessment that identified a budget shortfall of at least $237 million. GoTriangle received that report three weeks ago.

Meanwhile, changes to the route through downtown Durham triggered a fresh round of federal environmental assessments, further delaying the project.

All this came as key state deadlines loomed. Legislative changes enacted last year required that all nonfederal funds for the project be committed by April 30, and all federal funds no later than Nov. 30. Otherwise, there would be no state funding for the rail line.

"It is unprecedented – and I want to emphasize unprecedented – for the state to have put time deadlines on our project," said Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who is also GoTriangle's board chairwoman. "I can't think of another project that has had such time deadlines."

GoTriangle has spent more than $130 million in planning the rail line to date. The half-cent sales tax to fund transit that was approved by voters in Durham and Orange counties will continue to be collected, and revenues will pay for other aspects of each county's transit plan, like bus rapid transit and an Amtrak station in Hillsborough.

Transit officials say they want to find a way to salvage as much of the plan as possible, and will try to preserve the transit corridor set aside for the rail line.

"The next steps are you pick yourselves up and figure out where to go from here," said Schewel. "We have to have transit in this region, we have to figure out how to do it, and we will."

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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