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Duke changed its mind on the Durham-Orange Light Rail, throwing the project off track

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

In 2001, both Duke's Project Technical and Policy Oversight committees determined that Erwin Road — a street serving Duke’s Medical Center — was the preferred path for a new transit corridor in Durham. 

Approximately 18 years later, and after more than $130 million in Orange-Durham tax dollars had been spent designing a new light rail transit system, the executive vice president of the Policy Oversight Committee and Duke President Vincent Price informed GoTriangle that the university will not permit construction on Erwin Road, placing the project in jeopardy.  

“The current DOLRT Erwin Road alignment consequently bears extremely high risk for the critical research we do and the patients we are sworn to protect,” they said in a letter sent on Wednesday.

“We’ve tried very hard to make this work, doubling down on those efforts over the past several months; but the imposed deadline leaves us without the time needed to determine with confidence that the risks can be mitigated to an acceptable degree.”

Thursday was Duke University’s deadline to enter an agreement with GoTriangle. The Orange-Durham light rail needs approval from the Federal Transit Association to secure approximately $1.25 billion in federal funding and partial reimbursement to Orange and Durham counties for planning expenses.

The General Assembly budget from 2018 requires GoTriangle to secure federal funding by November 2019, or else the state would permanently withdraw their $190 million commitment.

Mark Marcoplos, an Orange County commissioner, said he felt betrayed by Duke’s sudden announcement, particularly after GoTriangle had already offered solutions to their concerns.

“We were kind of stunned that Duke claimed we waited until the last minute and we didn’t address their concerns, when, in fact, it’s documented that almost all of their concerns had been met, and in fact, they had people in their organization who would agree that they had been met,” he said.

The university’s letter cited concerns of patient safety due to construction vibrations and potential electromagnetic interference occurring near surgeries at Duke Hospital and Duke Eye Center.

In a memorandum documenting their negotiations with Duke, GoTriangle said they communicated to Duke on Jan. 16 that their construction contractor was able to keep vibrations under the threshold Duke Medical Center requested.

In the same document, GoTriangle said 20 other rail systems in United States operate at a similar distance to hospitals, and that they planned to adopt techniques similar to those of the Maryland Transit Administration at the University of Maryland to mitigate EMI.

Marcoplos said Orange-Durham and GoTriangle will learn the FTA’s reaction to Duke’s letter in the coming days. 

He said a potential solution for the project moving forward could be GoTriangle exercising eminent domain on the Erwin Road corridor, which has recently been used in Durham for the Railroad Operations Maintenance Facility, or ROMF, Marcoplos said.

“As city council member (Mark-Anthony) Middleton from Durham pointed out, Duke should be no different than a lower-income African-American family living next to the ROMF,” he said.

Claiming ownership of Erwin Road could be swift. Under a North Carolina law, dubbed “quick take,” the government can take ownership of land without an initial court hearing for the landowner, according to the website for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative-leaning think tank.

U.S. Rep. David Price, D-N.C., released a statement Thursday saying he was "profoundly disappointed" in Duke’s failure to negotiate with GoTriangle.

“As the Chairman of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, I am committed to continuing to work with local partners in support of expanding public transit alternatives for our region,” he said in the statement. “But make no mistake: this is a historic setback from which it will take years, if not decades, to recover.”  

Drew Shindell, an Earth science professor at Duke, said the university’s letter was largely disappointing to him and the majority of faculty within his department.

“It reminded me of many of (Duke’s) other communications, which seem to largely raise issues without proposing solutions,” he said.

Price wrote a letter to Durham city officials Thursday to emphasize Duke's commitment to the city of Durham.


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