Despite the challenge of a funding cap, a project to connect Durham to the UNC Hospitals system via light rail train could actually happen.
The Federal Transportation Agency signed off on the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the project two weeks ago — meaning the review phase conducted by the National Environmental Policy Act has concluded.
This is a significant milestone for the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project, which faced a bleak future after the N.C. General Assembly added a provision in the 2015 budget capping state funding for any future light rail projects at $500,000.
The project is expected to cost between $1.5 billion and $1.6 billion, with half of the money coming from the federal government. There are also plans to raise money including a half cent local sales tax, vehicle registration fees and a rental car tax in Durham and Orange counties.
Legislators who voted for the cap in summer 2015 must be convinced to reverse their decisions during the next legislative session to make the plan a reality.
Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, said the light rail project is not worth its hefty price tag.
“The main negative is its extraordinary cost," he said. "Buses that run very frequently are much better.”
Still, he favored the removal of the cap and ran an amendment to N.C. Senate Bill 605 to repeal it.
“It met the criteria for the strategic transportation initiative and shouldn’t be knocked out as part of a conference report,” Stam said.
The new light rail system would provide easier access to the UNC Hospitals system for patients and visitors outside of Chapel Hill, according to Karen McCall, a spokesperson for UNC Hospitals.
“The main benefit will be allowing patients, visitors, and employees to reach the campus via light rail from different points throughout Orange County and Durham County,” she said.
She said the light rail system would help alleviate the parking problem people face when trying to access the hospitals.
“It’s difficult for many of our patients, visitors and employees to find parking close to the hospitals and we also don’t have an integrated bus system throughout the region," McCall said.
The proposed light rail system would have 17 stops spanning 17 miles, starting in Durham and ending at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill.
“All of our stations were carefully chosen because of the attractions that are already there, and also for the development potential of some areas to host residential developments or new retail and academic uses,” said Jeffrey Sullivan, a spokesperson for GoTriangle.
Sullivan said the light rail system would help the region keep up with its projected growth in the coming years.
"We need to make sure as a region we are planning our growth sustainably and responsibly," he said. "And also providing transportation choices and infrastructure that allows us to facilitate that movement."
If everything goes according to plan for the project, the light rail should be in operation in 2025 or 2026.
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