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Thursday May 6th

Light rail project is possible again but has tight deadline

GoTriangle has designed mock-ups for a light rail between Durham and Chapel Hill paralleling 15-501. Graphic courtesy of GoTriangle.
Buy Photos GoTriangle has designed mock-ups for a light rail between Durham and Chapel Hill paralleling 15-501. Graphic courtesy of GoTriangle.

The Durham-Orange light rail transit project has pushed through from what appeared to be the project’s elimination to an uncertain but possible future. 

State legislators originally revised the state budget to require funding from the federal government for the project before acquiring state funding, an impossible request as the federal grant program requires state and local funding to be acquired first. 

With a bill passed June 13, the light rail project has a chance if it can obtain around $100 million in private funding by April and then $1.2 billion in federal funding by November 2019.

“It's going to be a challenge, but it's certainly not impossible,” Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, said. “Given the support this project has had so blatantly, I feel good about our chance of doing it. It's going to mean a lot of work and GoTriangle officials and other elected officials are really going to work really, really hard, and we're going to have to come to the business community and private supporters and really press them hard for their support now.”

The most urgent deadline comes in August when the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) will ask for a preliminary reporting on where GoTriangle will find the $59 million needed for approval, Orange County Commissioner Penny Rich said. Rich said she hopes the state can receive this money through private funding.

“There's nothing that's cheap about public transportation,” Rich said. “This blow has kind of taken us all back to the drawing board to see how we can figure this out.”

Orange County Commissioner Mark Marcoplos said the original state budget wording that prevented the light rail from receiving funding came from only a few state representatives, including NC Senate Leader Phil Berger and NC House Speaker Tim Moore.

“This is a democracy that is broken when a couple of people in a room can have such an impact on a regional project like this,” Marcoplos said. “Once this all came to a boil, people started talking to (Berger and Moore). They had strong political backers, big funders of theirs calling them up and questioning them on why were they going to do this crazy thing, why were they going to undermine this project when it would mean so much in economic development for the region and for the state.”

Rich said the light rail will provide 2,000 new jobs and attract major companies.

“We know that developers want this,” Rich said. “We know that folks like Amazon and Apple will not come to an area, a region, unless there is adequate public transportation.”

Rich and Marcoplos said the Orange County Board of Commissioners made a commitment that Orange County’s contribution to the project is limited at $149.5 million.

“A lot of people in Orange County are saying, well now they're going to go raise our taxes and take money from us for this project,” Marcoplos said. “That's just not the case. Whatever fix comes along to keep the project move forward will not come from Orange County taxpayers."

The light rail project was conceived over 20 years ago, Woodard said. Proponents of the project believe that by linking the major employers in Orange and Durham counties, the employment bases will stabilize, commute times will diminish and low-income residents will benefit.

If the project does not obtain the funding it needs by the deadlines, the collected taxes for the project would still go towards transit planning but likely towards bus rapid transit, which would require dedicated bus lanes and a reevaluation of the comprehensive transit plan, Rich said.

“Without light rail, then we would have to go back to the drawing board to figure out what we could do to particularly alleviate I-40 or 15-501 corridor that link UNC Hospitals and campus, Duke Hospital and campus and downtown Durham,” Woodard said.

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