The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday September 29th

The government shutdown v. the Durham-Orange Light Rail project: Which will end first?

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.

As the federal government shutdown reaches its third week, becoming the longest shutdown in United States history, Orange and Durham county leaders express concern over the planned Durham-Orange Light Rail project. 

GoTriangle, a public transportation provider that operates in the Research Triangle Park, is conducting a project that will carry passengers by light rail along a 17.7-mile route from Chapel Hill to Durham. On Dec. 14, GoTriangle announced a proposal for a tunnel to be constructed to bring a portion of the rail underground through downtown Durham. 

The proposal was submitted to the Federal Transit Administration, an agency within the Department of Transportation that provides support for local public transportation projects. The FTA will provide 50 percent of the project's capital costs.

The FTA, along with all of the DOT, has been closed since Dec. 22 as a result of the federal government shutdown.

The shutdown interrupted the process to finalize funding for the Durham-Orange Light Rail, said Penny Rich, the chairperson of the Board of Orange County Commissioners. 

“We have reports and concerns that we need to get into the FTA on a specific schedule,” Rich said. “The state is still open, and we’re on a state schedule and a federal schedule. It’s very difficult right now to talk to anyone at the government. There’s no one there.” 

Mark Marcoplos, an Orange County commissioner, said the FTA recently conducted a required analysis to identify the risks of the project and appropriately allocate contingency funds, which is reserve funding in case of unforeseen expense. 

Once the analysis is complete, the process to finalize the funding agreement can begin.

“The FTA got what they needed, went back up to Washington, D.C. and were told they couldn’t work,” Marcoplos said, referring to how the shutdown has affected FTA employees.

GoTriangle must meet a November deadline set by the General Assembly before the state will contribute its portion of the project's funding. Marcoplos, alongside GoTriangle and others involved, are concerned that a prolonged federal shutdown could affect the ability to create a plan that meets the legislature’s deadline. 

“We’re somewhat optimistic that the shutdown is going to end in the next week or two,” Marcoplos said. 

The furloughed FTA employees, however, are still cause enough for concern. Marcoplos said a three-week delay in the evaluation of the risk analysis by the FTA could jeopardize the project’s ability to meet the legislature’s deadline for the federal funding agreement. 

Based on President Donald Trump’s suggestions that the shutdown could last for months or years, the possibility of a three-week delay cannot be ruled out. 

The introduction of the proposed tunnel through downtown Durham is estimated to add an additional $68 million in cost to the project, with an added $25 million in contingency funds.

On GoTriangle’s website, the organization says the light rail “will offer a congestion-free way to travel and help manage future growth by creating vibrant, walkable communities and connecting residents to jobs, education and health care.” 

GoTriangle declined to comment on the proposal, stating that it is processing an update to information regarding the proposal and will have it ready closer to the end of January. 

Nancy Oates, a Chapel Hill Town Council member, said she is worried about the added costs, particularly on how it will affect Orange County taxpayers. Overall, she has been opposed to the light rail project. 

“I have not been a big supporter of it once I found out the total cost,” Oates said.

She said she isn't convinced the light rail is the best way to spur development in the area.

“The areas that they’re talking about are ripe for redevelopment anyway," she said. "I think they would be redeveloped whether or not we had a light rail.” 

Members of the state legislature expressed similar sentiments over the summer of 2018, said Marcoplos. Support from many residents of Durham and Orange counties, however, pushed the opposing legislators to reconsider.

“This project has cleared so many hurdles that were unexpected,” Marcoplos said. 

Marcoplos is hopeful the project will continue to progress as scheduled despite the shutdown. 

“The GoTriangle staff is working hard and doing a great job,” he said. “They’re moving ahead.” 

@henryhaney17 

city@dailytarheel

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