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The light rail project has been discontinued. Now what?

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

The GoTriangle Board of Trustees recommended a discontinuation of the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project Wednesday, bringing a halt to a decades-long transit initiative.

GoTriangle CEO Jeff Mann made the suggestion during a Board of Trustees meeting that discussed the future of the light rail. While the project was conceived as a way to connect Chapel Hill and Durham residents with one another and provide a link between UNC, Duke University and North Carolina Central University, rising costs and growing opposition contributed to a number of obstacles. 

Following Mann’s recommendation, the board unanimously voted for other stakeholders in Durham and Orange counties to put an end to the light rail. 

“Over the years, the two counties have used this approved light-rail alignment as a basis for land-use, economic development and affordable housing plans to best accommodate the more than 7,000 people the counties are adding each year,” Mann said in a statement about the decision. “Unfortunately, this project has recently faced a number of significant challenges, most notably Duke University’s refusal to sign necessary agreements with GoTriangle.”

The GoTriangle communications team did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Tar Heel. 

GoTriangle received a report from the Federal Transit Administration in February that said an additional $237 million in costs needed to be incorporated to receive any state funding for the light rail. Federal funding needed to be secured by Nov. 30, and non-federal funding by April 30. 

Duke administrators wrote to GoTriangle March 7 that they would no longer be involved in negotiations surrounding the light rail project. The letter mentioned electromagnetic interference and construction vibrations as potential public safety risks at the proposed stop on Erwin Road. 

UNC Interim Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and UNC Health Care CEO Wesley Burks said in a statement that they are disappointed in the recommendation.

“We still believe that mass transit is vital to the continued growth of the region and that viable options exist,” the statement.

Duke did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Daily Tar Heel. 

Following the GoTriangle decision, a group of Orange County and Durham-based organizations released a joint statement acknowledging the project had faced a number of obstacles, yet the discontinuation would have negative consequences. 

“A vital and needed investment in transit infrastructure will not be made, and ten years of work and over $130 million in local tax dollars will have failed to produce the benefits so many counted on,” the statement said. 

The coalition also condemned Duke for not properly investing in the project, saying other cities have successfully implemented similar projects next to medical centers. 

“If the North Carolina General Assembly had chosen to support this project in the same way they have supported the two recent similar light rail projects in Charlotte, with 25 percent state funding and no time deadlines, then the DOLRT would have prospered as well,” the statement said.

Orange County Commissioner Mark Marcoplos said the government shutdown earlier in the year also delayed the project timeline.

“It would have been a transformative project that would have helped people get to work and would have helped with affordable housing, jobs, economic development, generating revenue," said Marcoplos.

Michael Parker, Chapel Hill Town Council member and a member of the GoTriangle Board of Trustees, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the decision. Orange County Commissioner Penny Rich echoed the feeling, saying the choice had consequences beyond just transportation. 

“It's disappointing, but I understand the reasoning behind the recommendation," said Rich.

Parker also said staff will spend the next month or so deliberating on new options to invest in new regional transportation options. 

“We really need to take a hard look at where we’ve been and understand why we got to where we are so that if there were any issues we perhaps could have avoid or dealt with differently -- and I’m not saying there are, I wanna be really clear on that  -- but if there were, that we do things, you know, differently going forward,” he said. 

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said she knows people are upset and wants to focus on building transit that won't worsen congestion.

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"I think that we're going to continue working to find another solution," she said. "This is not the end."

Anna Pogarcic contributed reporting.

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The Daily Tar Heel Victory Paper for February 5, 2024

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