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Light rail project coordinators still optimistic about receiving federal funding


Residents board a GoTriangle bus going to downtown Durham. GoTriangle and the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization (DCHC-MPO) are planning on applying for $1 billion of federal funding for a light rail once designs for the project are completed. Photo by Amanda Nappi. 

GoTriangle’s Durham-Orange light rail project is planning to draw heavily from federal funding, but signs remain optimistic that the project will receive the money it needs even with uncertainty about federal transit policy. 

Mike Charbonneau, GoTriangle spokesperson, said the project was approved last summer to advance to the engineering or final design phase, and significant environmental and planning work had already been done to map the line and the location of stations. 

Half of the Durham-Orange light rail’s cost – totaling over a billion dollars — is expected to come from the federal government, and Charbonneau said he was very encouraged that the Federal Transit Administration had expressed continued interest in the project. 

Rachel Schaevitz, Chapel Hill Town council member, said it's likely the amount of funding available for Capital Investments Grants from the Federal government will be known by March 23. After this point, GoTriangle will have a better idea of the likelihood that they receive the funding they anticipate.  

Although nothing is official with funding, Charbonneau said GoTriangle remains optimistic about receiving federal funding with potential changes to federal infrastructure policy on the horizon. 

“We are obviously watching closely the federal funding process, working very closely with our delegation from North Carolina to talk about how important it is to keep the federal funding for transit in place,” he said. “We’re confident that as the negotiations move forward at the federal level that lawmakers will continue to recognize the value of transit and continue to invest in that.”

President Donald Trump has proposed a new infrastructure policy that would reduce the percentage of a project’s cost that the federal government would pay for from fifty percent to twenty percent. 

Carrboro Board of Aldermen member Damon Seils said many changes would likely be made before this proposal becomes law, and it is more immediately important that the project is hearing positive support from the FTA and representatives in Washington, D.C.

“Generally if the project is moved into engineering, it means that as long as we do our part in making sure the project is designed adequately, we can expect to receive the allocation from the federal government,” he said.

According to GoTriangle’s 2017 Annual Report, ten percent of the cost is expected to come from the state while the remaining forty percent will be from local sources. 

Carrboro residents contribute to Orange County’s funding for the light rail project through the county-wide sales tax, but the town is not currently connected to the planned rail line with a station. Seils said the long-term transportation plan anticipates discussions of extending the light rail line to Carrboro, but this would likely be several years in the future. 

According to GoTriangle’s 2017 annual report, the 17.7-mile light-rail system will connect UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University, and North Carolina Central University.

Charbonneau said the Durham-Orange light rail project is one of many taking place across the region. For example, he said Wake County is also working to improve and increase bus service while building commuter rail that will connect with Raleigh and Durham. 

“The light rail project is an important piece, an important connection point between Chapel Hill and Durham, but it’s also only one part of a two county transit plan, which is only one part of a much bigger regional transit plan,” he said.

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