The Orange County Board of Commissioners, while raising concerns Monday about details of the $1.87 billion Durham-Orange light rail project, voted 5-2 to sign a non-binding letter to help find up to $40 million more in local funding.
Commissioners Earl McKee and Renee Price opposed the move. They also opposed a statement of intent that Commissioner Barry Jacobs proposed as a way to show support for the project while reassuring taxpayers that the board was not going to keep spending more money on it. The statement passed 5-2.
No one wants to be responsible for stopping the train and be accused of blocking progress, McKee said.
“If we approve this, it sets an expectation that in April, we’re going to move forward, and as I mentioned a while ago, every month that we move, we expend funds at a high rate, and every month we move forward (with the plan), it’s harder to back off,” he said.
Price also took issue with the letter’s statement that Orange County voters generally supported light rail. Many supporting the half-cent transit sales tax hoped for more bus services and the Hillsborough Amtrak station, she said.
GoTriangle officials are trying to fill a $254 million state funding gap for the 17-mile light-rail line from UNC to N.C. Central University in Durham. They’ve also asked Durham to help find up to $135 million over 10 years and the regional Metropolitan Planning Organization for up to $20 million.
GoTriangle must show local support for at least 30 percent of the project’s cost in its Federal Transit Administration engineering application due Dec. 31. The next project update will be in April, when the commissioners must decide whether to spend $60 million to $70 million to do the engineering work.
The commissioners unanimously supported taking additional steps before April, including an independent financial review, a list of county transit goals and light-rail project benefits, and talks with Durham about the project and a cost-sharing agreement.
FTA grants could pay 50 percent, if approved, but the state set a 10 percent cap, leaving Durham and Orange to cover the remaining 40 percent.
Orange County now picks up 23 percent of the local share, but commissioners want to renegotiate with Durham, which sees more light-rail stations and benefits under the plan. GoTriangle also is working with a Funding and Community Collaborative of private citizens and local organizations to find financial help.
The collaborative raised its expectation in the last week from a $25 million to $50 million potential investment from public and private partners, general manager Jeff Mann said. None of that has been formally committed yet.
There are many questions, McKee said. He noted GoTriangle has spent about $27.7 million so far, an average of $700,000 a month for three years.
Commissioners Mark Marcoplos and Jacobs also noted concerns about the information GoTriangle provided, but they and other commissioners agreed to move forward now and consider the details and options later.
“Where I have problems,” Jacobs said, “is over time GoTriangle has been a translucent organization, and many people are frustrated because they can’t get information or the information changes. I know that’s true for some of us.”
Slightly more than half of those who spoke urged the commissioners to stop and consider the options now. The rural advocacy group Orange County Voice collected more than 600 signatures on a petition supporting “Plan B” – bus-rapid transit, regular buses and on-demand, car-based services.
Some residents, including Patricia Clayton, president of the Northern Orange NAACP, said families, workers and seniors in rural areas lack good transit options. They endorsed the half-cent sales tax, because they expected it to bring more buses and other transportation to their community, she said.
“Given the recent state funding cuts and other challenges facing the project, we believe this is a good time to say no more. Our citizens will be best served if you redirect resources to an alternative plan that also includes transportation in northern Orange,” Clayton said.
Hillsborough resident Aaron Butner pointed to the growing light rail cost and financial burden for lower-income families. There are better priorities, he said.
“Once I understood the facts on the ground and the risks to Orange County citizens, I found myself asking why you would want to support this project at all, especially since there’s so many alternatives that are more flexible, provide more service and are a lot more cost effective,” Butner said. “Plus, under new land-use assumptions, we should be planning on rapid service to Chatham Park, RTP, Wake, and even Hillsborough, not just service from UNC to Durham.”
Olivia Truax spoke, however, about growing up needing a car to get from Chapel Hill to Durham. She wants her family one day to need cars less, she said.
“Not only would light rail connect existing development in Chapel Hill and Durham, at the hospitals and universities, it has the potential to promote the type of high-density mixed-use development in this area as it continues to grow, as its projected to do in the coming decades,” Truax said.
GoTriangle commuter Tom Farmer said he already enjoys extra bus hours paid with the sales tax. Light rail is a “wise investment” in the economic future, he said.
“We risk losing our ability to attract good people, good businesses and good jobs as our economy stagnates while we are mired in traffic,” Farmer said. “(Opponents) say that paying for light rail comes at the expense of other transit amenities, when in fact, Durham-Orange Light Rail is the anchor of an extensive transit plan” connecting Durham to Wake via commuter rail and linking services across Orange County.