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Durham community protests Duke's role in ending light rail project

Light Rail Rally
Duke alum Kevin Primus speaks at the Light Rail Rally in front of the Allen Building on Duke's campus on Friday, March 29, 2019.

The announcement of discontinuation of the light rail sent a shockwave throughout the Triangle community. The reaction was such that students from Duke University — past and present — came together to stage a protest in front of Allen Building, the university's main administration building, on Friday afternoon.

A host of speakers were present at the event, including Durham Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson as well as Duke and UNC students. Every speaker was met with snaps of agreement and applause.

Many Duke administrators were in attendance, said Bennett Carpenter, a Duke graduate and one of the speakers. Durham residents were also present.

Duke announced on Feb. 27 its withdrawal from the light rail project, virtually ending any chance of continuing the construction of the project. The university cited the risk the construction posed to research and patients, referring to Duke’s Medical Center on Erwin road.

This explanation was met with anger and skepticism by students and residents alike. Many students focused on the missed opportunities with ending the light rail project.

As the Triangle grows in population, the area is expected to experience increased traffic congestion. The light rail would have provided an opportunity for residents to commute with greater ease, facilitating greater connectivity. Other hoped benefits included reducing the region's carbon footprint and need for buses, along with covering more stops not included in bus routes.

Ariyani Challapalli, an undergraduate student at Duke, implored members of the university to seize the future of their community in their own hands and take responsibility. 

“Some of my friends asked me why this rally is even happening — if the light rail is dead. My answer is that the light rail may be over, but that does not mean that its implications for the community have ended,” she said. “What place does Duke have with Durham, within Durham, and what kind of change are we going to demand moving forward?”

Johnson also emphasized the missed opportunities the end of the project means.

“It's really formed the core, of not just our regional transit home, but also a lot of our housing affordability plans, our jobs plans and educational planning that’s been going on," she said. "I really see this project as what could have been the catalyst for a regional boom in the area.”

Johnson spoke of the investment that would have been stemmed in the area because of the project. This created hopes to provide more jobs for Durham residents, creating a jobs program that would have trained residents and created competition.

Johnson said the project had the potential to help alleviate unemployment in Black and Latinx communities.

“I am encouraged by the fact that so many members of the Duke community — students, faculty and alumni — are willing to come out and publicly say that they think this decision was wrong, and that it's created a huge negative impact for the city of Durham and for our residents,” she said.

Carpenter felt Duke's decision to break from the project was "egregious." He said it's important for students to demonstrate their frustration to the university administration.

“Duke now owes an even bigger debt to Durham and the broader Triangle than it did before," he said. "Many speakers spoke to the decades-long history of a the really unfortunate relationship with the Durham community.”

Genelle Wilson, a Duke graduate student, criticized Duke President Vincent Price’s failure to succeed in his responsibility to improve university relations with the community.

“A good partner listens to what the community says," she said. "A good partner invites the community into the decision-making process.”


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