News: Quick Takes

Federal funds for GoTriangle light rail project at risk in Trump budget

A diagram of proposed transit connections for the Triangle shows commuter rail, light rail, and express bus lines. (Image from website)
A diagram of proposed transit connections for the Triangle shows commuter rail, light rail, and express bus lines. (Image from website)

The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project could be in trouble.

GoTriangle, the transit agency in charge of the 17.7 mile light-rail project, is relying on $1.2 billion in Capital Investment Grant funds, with an additional $247 million in state money. The estimated price tag is $2.47 billion.

But President Trump’s budget plan would eliminate a good chunk of funding for the light rail project by winding down the Capital Investment Grant program. Other cuts include eliminating the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant program and cutting subsidies for long-distance Amtrak routes.

The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project is in the engineering phase, meaning the transit agency is working with the Federal Transit Administration to complete project design. The light rail would connect three major universities, three major medical facilities, and three of the top 10 employers in the state — Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and UNC Health Care.

Construction is expected to begin in 2020, but the project can move forward only if the federal grants are available.

“The fact of the matter is this, we cannot complete the project without a full funding grant agreement from the federal government,” GoTriangle government affairs manager Matthew Clark told Orange County Commissioners during a Feb. 6 meeting, wrote The Herald-Sun.

Orange County Commissioner Earl McKee, who voted against the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project, is worried about financial feasibility.

“I am concerned that should the federal funding come in at a slightly lower rate, let’s say 45 or 40 percent, there would be an effort to have the local jurisdiction pick up that spread just like we were asked.” McKee said. “Our board and Durham’s board agreed to cover the shortfall that the state created by dropping their funding levels from 25 percent to a maximum of 10 percent.”

McKee said the counties are effectively on the hook for 40 percent of the total cost, amounting to almost a billion dollars more than originally expected.

“I do not think the project is financially feasible anymore. I think this entire conversation is backwards. We need — Orange County particularly — needs a better local system built out before we move forward,” McKee said. “I think at this point in time with the population base and the tax base, the program is premature.

In the end, GoTriangle may not need a plan B. The White House has tried to cut the transportation grant program before — in the 2017 and 2018 budgets plans — without success.