Durham leaders on Tuesday expressed continued support for the Durham-Orange Light Rail Project and for providing non-binding letters of intent to help fill a $254 million funding gap in the $1.87 billion project.
The Joint City-County Committee, a board of three City Council members and three county commissioners, unanimously voted to bring the request back to their respective boards.
The City Council plans to discuss it Dec. 8.
The Durham County commissioners plan to consider the issue Dec. 12.
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“I think at this point in time, we as a community could ill afford not to keep this project moving forward,” Mayor Bill Bell said. “We aren’t planning for today, we aren’t planning for tomorrow. We are planning for what this community wants to look like 10, 20, 30 years from now. This is but part of the first step to addressing that.”
Initially the light-rail plan called for the state covering 25 percent of the cost or $467 million. The legislature has since capped state support at 10 percent.
GoTriangle now wants Durham County governments to commit to identifying $135 million in additional funding over 10 years and Orange County, $40 million over 10 years.
GoTriangle, a regional transit agency, needs the governments’ commitments in an application to the Federal Transit Administration due Dec. 31 in order to move the project into the engineering phase. The application must include commitments for at least 30 percent of the local and state cost. If the commitments aren’t included, it could make the project less competitive in the process to receive federal dollars.
The counties will need to update their transit plans in April, GoTriangle officials said, to signal their continued interest in the project as local spending is set to increase significantly then. The local governments will have to decide whether to make binding commitments of additional funds or stop the project by June 2018.
GoTriangle also has been working for three months with a Funding and Community Collaborative of university, government and private individuals to look for alternative funding sources and land that might be donated for the light-rail line.
Before Tuesday’s vote, elected leaders described the light-rail project as an economic driver that would help address quality-of-life issues, from congestion on highways to transportation options for the poor.
Commissioner Ellen Reckhow pointed out that Durham is expected to have a 50 percent population and job growth in the next 25 years.
Duke University Health System officials said in a letter sent last week that it cannot support a planned Durham-Orange light-rail route that runs outside their hospitals on Erwin Road, reiterating longstanding concerns about safety and access.
Elected leaders didn’t discuss the letter at the meeting.