A request to consider putting in more local money only raises more questions about the $1.8 billion Durham-Orange Light Rail Project and how it will be funded, says Orange County commissioners Chairman Earl McKee.
The 17-mile light-rail line would connect UNC to Alston Avenue or possibly N.C. Central University in Durham. In between, it would serve Chapel Hill’s N.C. 54 corridor, New Hope and South Square retail areas, downtown Durham, and other stops.
“This is something that touches everyone, and my main concern is how it touches some of the people who can afford it the least,” McKee said in an interview Friday. McKee lives in and represents District 2 in northern Orange County.
“There are needs that are not being addressed by this project to get people to the grocery store, to address issues in their daily lives, because they don’t live close enough to the project and the project doesn’t go where they need to go,” he said.
The final cost and who will pay also is uncertain, he said, especially with the possibility of future decisions by the state and President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. Better to put the focus now on a stronger bus network, he said, and think about light rail down the line.
GoTriangle has a plan to cover a $280 million state shortfall and unexpected federal funding delay with higher than anticipated quarter-cent transit sales tax revenues, a longer financing term, $175 million more from Orange and Durham counties, and a mix of of public and private donations, grants and money.
The request for more local money prompted the rural advocacy group Orange County Voice to push for “Plan B,” which would replace light rail with more bus-rapid transit, traditional bus and on-demand, car-based services. A separate citizens petition seeks to delay a Dec. 5 vote by the county commissioners until the light-rail benefits and costs can be studied.
The federal engineering application due Dec. 31 needs commitments for at least 30 percent of the money, or the project will be delayed.
His other concern, McKee said, is the Funding and Community Collaborative – a group of 21 private citizens and health care, university and government officials working to resolve light-rail challenges. Both county board chairmen heard about the group from a news release. They should have been invited to join, McKee said.
“This is a powerful group of people, these are thought leaders from the community. It’s not like one person’s going to walk in that room and dominate the conversation,” McKee said. “Even at that, to form a group that is trying to help determine the outcome and help determine the direction of a project of this size, it should have some dissenting voices, whether it’s mine or someone else.”
Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier, a member of the collaborative and the GoTriangle Board of Trustees, mentioned in September that a group was exploring light rail options. GoTriangle officials at the time said the unnamed group was exploring an extension to N.C. Central University.
The collaborative was not mentioned during a Nov. 17 financial discussion, although a news release that day said the collaborative was seeking solutions. The collaborative has only met a couple of times, Pelissier said. McKee called her about his concerns, she said.
“I said, Earl, this is an informal group of people who want to see the project go forward and are trying to find solutions,” she said. “Why would we ask you when you know you’ve never liked light rail? It’s not about the status of an elected official.”
Commissioner Barry Jacobs said better communication is needed.
“I think part of the problem here, too, is not only are there a lot of uncertainties, but the explanations have not been clear of what we’re being asked to do or what’s happening or who is contributing what money or what contingency plans have been made,” Jacobs said.
The commissioners are going to ask for clear benchmarks and scheduling, he said. Both are required by 2016, according to the interlocal agreement guiding the light-rail plan.
A vote to stop the process in December seems shortsighted, Commissioner Mark Dorosin said. The commissioners will review updated transit and financial plans before deciding to spend $60 million to $70 million on engineering work in April.
“Before we have to make any substantive commitments, I think we will have time to do the kind of close financial review and negotiation that everyone is asking for, that I think opponents and proponents alike want and need,” Dorosin said.
Duke University Health System cannot support the current light-rail project because of concerns about access and safety on Erwin Road in Durham, officials told GoTriangle general manager Jeff Mann in a Nov. 21 letter.
“While we welcome continued dialogue regarding the development of an efficient and cost effective public transportation system, we cannot support the proposed Durham Orange Light Rail as it is currently proposed,” Duke Chancellor for Health Affairs A. Eugene Washington and Executive Vice President William J. Fulkerson said in the letter.
Duke University Health System have had concerns about the proposed route along Erwin Road for several years.
The letter also cited recent efforts by the public-private Funding and Community Collaborative to find ways of bridging a financial gap created when the state reduced the amount that it might be willing to pay toward light rail. Those efforts “will further exacerbate the issues of access for ambulances to the busiest hospital and emergency department in the region,” the letter states.