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GoTriangle considers light rail future after Duke decides to not negotiate

The Duke University Chapel on Duke’s West Campus, as photographed in 2017, serves as a symbol of the university.

The Duke University Chapel on Duke’s West Campus, as photographed in 2017, serves as a symbol of the university.

The Durham and Orange counties' Light Rail Project has hit some bumps in the road. In the past two weeks, GoTriangle has received a draft of a Federal Transit Administration risk report and a refusal from Duke University to officially sign on to the project.

GoTriangle received the FTA draft report, which detailed some unresolved concerns, on Feb. 26. Lingering issues included the budget for the approximately 18-mile project and the schedule, which could be potentially thrown off course by Duke’s concerns about the planned rail line by their medical facilities on Erwin Road in Durham. 

The report recommended the project’s budget be set to at least $2.5 billion due to increasing construction costs and recent changes. 

The report delivered some good news, however, saying GoTriangle had been “diligent” in understanding potential risks and stressed the importance of staying on schedule with the project. GoTriangle Director of Marketing and Communications, Mike Charbonneau, said once the draft was sent to the project team, they have 20 days to respond to the FTA with any corrections to their information. Once they respond, the FTA will release a final report.

The day after GoTriangle received this draft letter, Duke administrators announced they would not sign agreements for the project, voicing concerns about how the trains could affect medical care in the proposed areas for the lines.

In response, CEO of GoTriangle Jeff Mann and chairperson of the GoTriangle Board of Trustees Ellen Reckhow wrote to Duke, asking them to agree to mediation. 

“The lack of cooperative agreement with Duke creates significant challenges for the Light-Rail Project, effectively nullifying two decades of work,” the letter read.

The letter voiced frustrations that Duke’s concerns had not been discussed during the process to establish an Environmental Impact Statement in 2015. They addressed each of Duke’s concerns separately, including electromagnetic interference with medical machinery, vibration effects from the construction, disruption to power and utilities and liability. The letter emphasized GoTriangle’s continued dedication to partnering with Duke, and the hopes that these concerns can be mediated. 

Individuals have also voiced concerns about the future of the project and frustration with delays.

Sam Christensen, a senior Asian studies and American studies major at UNC, said he sees the Light Rail as an opportunity for influential businesses in the Triangle area to give back to the community.

“I think Duke leaving the project is emblematic of how some privileged people in the Triangle are unwilling to participate in giving back to the community,” he said. “It could be a huge boon to everyone in the Triangle, and I’m disappointed with Duke for not fulfilling their public duty.”

While these concerns have left many questions about the future of the Light Rail Project, 52 groups signed a letter Tuesday calling for the GoTriangle Board to continue their support of the project. Organizations listed on the letter include the Duke Independent Film Festival, Durham Housing Authority, and N.C. Conservation Network. 

“We find the recent failure of Duke University President Vince Price to support the rail project to be deeply troubling and without any basis in fact,” the letter read. “... This rail project is simply too important to our communities to allow a single private landowner to kill it.”

On Thursday, Duke responded to the GoTriangle letter saying they will not agree to mediation and reiterating their concerns.

"Unfortunately, Duke's concerns and requests for consideration of alternate routes – which have been stated in almost identical form since 1999 – were ignored, minimized, or redirected," the letter read.

The letter, signed by Price, CEO of Duke University Health System A. Eugene Washington, and Duke Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III, closed by encouraging leadership and common ground moving forward. 


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