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Adjusted State Budget Could Kill Durham-Orange Light Rail

An artist's rendering of a light rail stop.
Triangle Transit
An artist's rending of the Durham-Orange Light Rail project.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly gave final approval to its 2018-19 budget today, passing an adjusted $24 billion spending plan through a process that allowed for no input or amendments from Democrats.

And the budget contains one provision that could kill a light rail project years in the making.

Credit North Carolina General Assembly
Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham)

The provision says a light rail project will not get any state funds until non-state funds are secured.

"This is problematic because the Federal Transit Administration will commit 50 percent of a large transit project's cost only after state, local and other funds have been committed for the other half," said Mike Charbonneau, Director of Communications with GoTriangle.

The FTA authorized the Durham-Orange light rail project to enter its final design phase. That positioned the project to apply at the end of this year for $1.2 billion from the federal government, or half the project's cost.

"It's amazing that you can take four lines and eliminate the possibility of bringing together a mass transit system that has been under development for 25 years and walk away from $1.2 billion that we're entitled to receive, that's taxpayer money that North Carolina is now going to abandon," said State Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham). 

The Durham-Orange light rail project is designed to be an 18-mile line running from UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill to North Carolina Central University in Durham, linking with Duke University along the way.

GoTriangle's Mike Charbonneau said it would connect major medical facilities and serve people across the socio-economic spectrum.

"Full of 18 stations, some in large downtown economic development areas some near communities that rely on public transportation to get around so that this would create greater access for people who have no other option but public transportation to get to better health and get to better jobs," he said.

Credit North Carolina General Assembly
Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham)

To get to this point, the project went through a rigorous scoring process established by the state Department of Transportation to deem whether it was worth a major investment.

Based on its potential for improving mobility, relieving congestion, and contributing to economic development, the Durham-Orange light rail qualified for $247 million in state funds, money needed to secure those federal funds.

And Durham and Orange County voters approved a half-cent sales tax to raise local funds for light rail.

Another Durham Democrat, State Representative Marcia Morey, pointed out in floor debate this week that the budget would kill the rail project while boosting cash incentives for attracting high-tech companies to the state.

"And while we try to encourage and recruit businesses, what is the message we're giving them? We're going to keep an archaic transportation system in North Carolina," Morey said.

Credit North Carolina General Assembly
Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Wake)

Republican budget writers have been vague in their reassurances.

Wake County Representative Nelson Dollar, the GOP's budget point man, said a legislative staff analysis shows the budget provision doesn't necessarily preclude the Durham-Orange light rail project, though it does require some federal commitment first.

Dollar said that could be worked out.

If not, Dollar said, "[t]his issue along with other transportation issues are continually discussed, principally in the budget, but other vehicles could carry those considerations as well as need be."

For now, though, it looks like the Durham-Orange transit project could be derailed.

Rusty Jacobs is a politics reporter for WUNC.
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