Durham Leaders Look For Options As Duke Rejects Light Rail Plan

Feb 28, 2019

Rendering of Durham-Orange light rail line.
Credit Triangle Transit Authority

Duke University officials announced Wednesday that they won't sign a cooperative agreement to advance the Durham-Orange light rail plan. That leaves Durham city and transportation officials scrambling to come up with an alternative, or see the project die.

Durham Council Member Mark-Anthony Middleton says the transit authority should consider using eminent domain to keep the project moving forward.

He notes that power has already been used to claim land for a maintenance facility for the proposed 18-mile rail line between Durham and Chapel Hill.

"Everyone who cautions us about tangling with Duke because of their wealth and influence has to ask themselves, very soberly, if we're willing to use eminent domain for folks that aren't wealthy and well-connected, but we hold back on using it for folks that are, what message are we sending as a government?" he said.

Duke Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld on Friday declined to comment on the question of eminent domain.

GoTriangle needed land-sharing agreements from Duke and North Carolina Railroad (NCRR) by the end of February to meet a deadline to be eligible for federal funding for the project. However, both entities declined to sign. NCRR officials wrote they needed more time to work out specifics. Duke cited concerns that vibrations and electromagnetic interference from the rail line could interfere with sensitive medical and research equipment at Duke Hospital, writing in a letter to GoTriangle: "The current [Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit] Erwin Road alignment consequently bears extremely high risk for the critical research we do and the patients we are sworn to protect."

Schoenfeld said the university made these concerns known to Go Triangle throughout the 20 year planning process.

"The DORLT project is something that Duke University has been supportive of for 20 years, and has also indicated deep concern about the portion of the rail line on Erwin Road in front of the hospital," he said.  "We have been very, very clear that running an electric train line down Erwin Road within 150 feet of patient care and research activity was simply not going to be feasible."

"This would not be the first time a light rail system goes by a hospital," said Middleton. He noted a light rail line runs directly through the Texas Medical Center in downtown Houston. "There were a number of conversation partners and a number of national standards that we could have looked to, we believe, to mitigate those concerns."

Congressmen David Price (D-NC 4th District) and G.K. Butterfield (D-NC 1st District) each represent parts of Durham. They issued statements Thursday decrying Duke's decision. Price called it "a historic setback" for public transit, while Butterfield urged GoTriangle and local governments to “use all options available to move this project forward."

Schoenfeld said Duke remains committed to working with the community to develop a regional transit plan.