In a major blow to proponents of light rail, the GoTriangle Board of Trustees voted unanimously Wednesday, March 27, to end the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project.
The $2.7-billion project would have included a nearly 18-mile railway connecting UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill with Duke University, but significant setbacks and obstacles killed the plan.
“Unfortunately, this project has recently faced a number of significant challenges, most notably Duke University’s refusal to sign necessary agreements with GoTriangle,” Jeff Mann, the GoTriangle President and CEO, said in a statement read to the board.
Duke University refused to sign a cooperative agreement with GoTriangle over a bevy of concerns with the project. Duke President Vincent Price, Duke Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III, and Duke University Health System President and CEO A. Eugene Washington sent a joint letter to GoTriangle in February outlining their problems with the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project. Electromagnetic interference with medical equipment, vibrations and noise from rail cars, and potential power disruptions to utilities, and liability concerns were just a few of the unresolved issues Duke had with the project.
Gerry Cohen, former special counsel to the General Assembly and a vocal light-rail supporter, said Duke acted in bad faith in their negotiations with GoTriangle. Once supportive of the project, Duke has since changed its tune.
“Duke has all the way through the years of development of the project supported it, including specifically asking for a station to be on Erwin Road, but they later came back and said it’s a deal killer because of traffic,” Cohen said.
Duke’s unwillingness to work with GoTriangle and allow the construction of a light rail on Erwin Road created a significant obstacle. An eminent domain battle to take Duke’s land would likely be costly and time consuming, and the delays would make it next to impossible to meet federal and state deadlines.
Duke isn’t solely responsible, and Mann pointed to several other factors contributing to the outcome.
“Additionally, 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,” Mann said.
Mann said a 2018 legislative change required that all other non-federal funds for the project be committed by April 30, 2019. Before the light rail project received any state money, all federal funds would have to be committed no later than Nov. 30, 2019.
Not only has GoTriangle struggled to meet funding deadlines, but the agency has failed to reach an agreement with the state-owned North Carolina Railroad to move forward.
Due to concerns expressed by Norfolk Southern and Duke University, the project team proposed a new tunnel option for downtown Durham. These proposed changes led the Federal Transit Administration to send a draft risk assessment to GoTriangle saying it must build into the budget an extra $237 million in project costs and contingencies. A new environmental impact study also would be required for changes to downtown Durham.
The uncertainties and lack of agreement with stakeholders, such as Duke University, made it unlikely the project would receive any federal funding by November 2019, the FTA told Mann.
“At this point, the counties would have to identify a path to cover the loss of the state’s $190 million, the additional $237 million in project costs and contingency, and the approximately $87 million shortfall in fundraising efforts,” Mann said.
The GoTriangle board will use money collected for light rail for other transit projects and improvements.
“We will be quickly working on a way to supplant what the light rail might have done for us to the best of our ability considering that the light rail was well studied and was the best solution for our problem, but we have other options and a commitment to provide the best transit that we can,” Mark Marcoplos told the News & Observer.
Cohen said the possibility of a light rail project anywhere near Duke won’t happen.
“I assume that regional transit agencies will avoid at almost all cost with having to deal with Duke again,” Cohen said. “They made their bed, let them lie in it.”