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Just when you thought the light rail might finally get going, new oppositions arise

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

On paper, a light rail that would reduce carbon emissions, connect three major universities and allow transportation access to three of the largest employers in North Carolina may seem like a perfect plan, but many citizens have voiced displeasure with the project as costs continue to rise.

GoTriangle has been studying how to implement an effective rail commuter system in the Triangle area since 2010 but has faced obstacles. 

In July 2017, the Federal Transit Administration finally approved the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project to move into its engineering phase of the federal Capital Investment Grant Program.

Chapel Hill Town Council member Donna Bell said she has loved the idea of the project since it was first introduced.

“I was first involved in discussions of the light rail when I joined the council in 2010. I love the project. I love the idea of creating regional connectivity that is not dependent of creating wider roads,” she said.

The current plan of the project would result in a 17.7 mile light-rail line that includes parts of Durham and Orange County and will include 18 stations from North Carolina Central University to UNC Hospitals.

GoTriangle expects the project will result in $600 million in new yearly GDP for the state and $175 million in new state and local tax revenue each year.

For the project, GoTriangle has secured $1.25 billion in federal funding, along with $190 million in state funding. To make up the rest of the costs, GoTriangle will have to turn to local and other sources for funding, and if they want the project to remain eligible, they have to act quickly.

GoTriangle must secure all non-federal funds by April 30 in order to remain eligible for state funding. However, this has not been an easy task as the project continues to run into complications and opposition.

Penny Rich, chairperson of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, said this opposition has only made the project more difficult.

“If you look at any light rail project across America, you will find there was always opposition to it," she said. "Which adds time to it, which makes it change, which makes it more expensive.”

Rich hopes that people will conduct proper research before making a decision on the Light Rail, and she is worried about the spread of misinformation about the project. She said a misconception is that money is being taken away from education to pay for the light rail, which she said is not true.

After stakeholders raised a concern about closing a section of Blackwell Street to vehicles, GoTriangle had to adjust. In their January 2019 project update, GoTriangle discussed a new proposal that would include a tunnel for the light rail line through downtown Durham. These changes were preliminarily estimated to cost between $80 million and $100 million.

As the plan's sticker price rose, groups of local citizens began to voice their concerns. 

Affordable Transit for All, formed in spring 2017, is a network of leaders from groups, including Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, that protests the light rail on the grounds that it takes funding away from other transit projects. Julie McClintock and David Adams of CHALT filed a petition, “Light Rail: Stop, Look, and Listen,” with the Town that raises issues like the rising costs, growing risks and changing debt plan of the project. 

McClintock, a CHALT leader and a member of Affordable Transit, doesn’t approve of the rising costs that come from extra additions like the Blackwell Street tunnel. 

“The costs are out of control, and we have to cap the spending and say no to future debt,” she said.

CHALT hopes the county commission uses its independent consultant group to help assess what they view as the growing risks that the light rail poses to the county’s budget and financial stability.

"We would just love to see the project end, so that we can start working on transit that will really work for our county and for our region," McClintock said. 


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