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You probably know the latest, but you may not know the history of the light rail project

lightrail timeline

Decades of planning have gone into the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project, but following Duke University’s recent withdrawal of fiscal support and the North Carolina Railroad Company’s refusal to approve current design plans, its future has come into question. 

On Feb. 27, Duke and North Carolina Railroad Company wrote letters to GoTriangle President and CEO Jeff Mann about some of their concerns with the project.

The loss of support from Duke and the lack of approval from the railroad company raises concerns about the unresolved issues critics have said GoTriangle, the transit authority spearheading this project, has yet to address. 

In the past year, the project has been marked by increased expenses and sudden adjustments to the plan, such as the decision to build a tunnel through downtown Durham to accommodate the rail.

The project, however, extends back decades.

Tax policies between 1989 and 1997 laid the foundations for regional transit projects. In 1989, the founding of Triangle Transit signaled the region’s dedication to improving public transportation. Various taxes implemented in the years following financed regional bus operations and more. 

In 1998, a major investment study discussed a potential light rail between Durham and Chapel Hill. In December 2001, the rail was mentioned again. At this time, Duke joined the discussion — over the next several years, Durham and Orange counties, Duke and other partners began to draft and redraft plans for a transit route. 

In 2011 and 2012, voters in both counties approved a half-cent sales tax to raise money for transit projects. In the years since, GoTriangle and project partners have conducted extensive engineering and financial plans and spent over $130 million in the process. 

Julie McClintock, a member of Chapel Hill Alliance for a Liveable Town, a local group who opposes the light rail, was involved in early discussions about the light rail when she served on the Chapel Hill Town Council in the early 2000s. 

“I think that when they voted for the transit tax, they voted for transit,” she said. “They didn’t vote for the light rail come hell or high water. Maybe some of them voted because they liked the light rail, but the light rail is not affordable now.” 

In terms of Duke’s concerns about vibration from the light rail and its construction, it was first thoroughly discussed on Nov. 29, 2017 at a GoTriangle meeting with Duke attendees. At the December 2001 meeting, projections indicated Erwin Road as a preferred path of transit development. 

Mark Marcoplos, Orange County commissioner and light rail supporter, expressed surprise at Duke’s sudden opposition to a station on Erwin Road. 

“It’s like another being inhabited Duke’s body, and they come out with this entirely different negative perspective on the project,” Marcoplos said. 

He said he thinks Duke prefers to be insulated from Durham to some extent. He referenced the Bull City Connector, a fare-free bus route that runs through Durham, including through Duke’s campus. For many years, it was partially funded by Duke, but in 2018 it ceased its funding and started its own shuttle from downtown to campus. 

Access to public transportation has been shown to positively impact impoverished communities of color. Since a significant portion of the Bull City Connector's riders are Black, Marcoplos expressed concern if racism had anything to do with the creation of Duke's own shuttle and their light rail decision.

Marcoplos referenced Duke’s Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III allegedly calling a Black woman a racial slur after hitting her with his car in 2014. Trask, who has been a key player in the light rail discussion, denied use of the slur. 

Phil Post, a resident of Chapel Hill and Durham County, cited concerns about an industrial facility GoTriangle would build alongside the light rail. The proposed facility would serve as a light rail maintenance center. A group of Post’s neighbors submitted a complaint and are seeking legal action over GoTriangle’s proposal and its proximity to occupied dwellings. 

“It brings industrial uses into an area of Chapel Hill and Durham County that have never been designated for industrial use,” Post said. 

The complaint addresses concerns regarding the environmental hazards of the chemicals that the facility would house, such as contaminated runoff entering watersheds, as well as concerns about noises and vibrations that may disturb students in the elementary school close to the proposed site. 

GoTriangle has until the end of April to secure full funding from non-governmental partners before the state legislature will agree to financial contributions. 

GoTriangle and Orange County officials are exploring if eminent domain is an option.

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"We're trying to figure out if the FTA will allow eminent domain to proceed without a cooperative agreement with Duke because, in the end, they're the ones that have required the cooperative agreement from all the entities, from Chapel Hill, from Duke Energy, from AT&T, from the railroad, Duke and all that," Marcoplos said.

Since Duke’s withdrawal from the agreement, Marcoplos said the project may very well be finished. 


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