At least one City Council member wonders whether Durham County governments can afford to support the Durham-Orange Light Rail Project given a new request to kick in up to $135 million over a 10-year period.
“This is a project that we desperately need in Durham,” said City Councilman Charlie Reece. “But I don’t know how we can carry this much of the weight. I think it is a simple fact that there are often programs that would be great that we simply can’t afford given all the other things we want to do.”
Reece expressed his concern about the $1.87 billion light-rail plan at a Thursday City work session. The session gave council members an opportunity to discuss and ask questions about items on the Dec. 19 meeting agenda, which includes a vote on approving a letter of support for the light-rail project. The letter includes a commitment to work with Durham County to identify additional local funding for the project. Durham County plans to vote Monday on a non-binding letter of intent to help GoTriangle identify additional funds.
GoTriangle officials requested the letters as they try to fill a $254 million funding gap for the 17.5-mile line from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to N.C. Central University. 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 asked Orange County to help find up to $40 million more in local funding and Durham County to help find up to $135 million. The money would be paid over a 10-year period.
While Orange and Durham counties are being asked to make the commitment, the city is expected to help fill the funding gap, said Mayor Bill Bell.
“We haven’t decided how the dollars will be determined and who is going to do what,” Bell said.
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. In April, Orange and Durham governments will be asked again to signal support as GoTriangle will spend $60 million to $70 million on engineering work before the governments are asked to make binding commitments in June 2018.
On Thursday Reece said he was having a hard time understanding why he should support the city letter when it would result in spending about $6 million through April on a project that lacks a clear funding plan.
Orange County commissioners voted last week to support a non-binding letter to help find up to $40 million more for its share of local funding but also indicated they want to renegotiate with Durham County, likely asking for it to pay a larger share.
“I have yet to be convinced that there is a local funding option that makes sense for the people of Durham,” Reece said.
Bell and Councilman Steve Schewel said the project is worth the risk.
Bell said the letter gives the project time to find funding answers for an important project.
“Simply, we believe enough in this project that we don’t want to stop it now,” Bell said.
Schewel said when the city is taking steps toward a huge infrastructure project such as this one there are always risks.
“We would be risking the $6 million expenditure, but we are risking it for something that I think is just so kind of generationally important,” he said.
Schewel also noted the costs of not moving forward, considering adding another lane to Interstate 40 can cost $500 million.
“It’s not local funds, but it makes me think what (is) the alternative is to that,” Schewel said. “Which I just think is very, very expensive gridlock.”
Durham County commissioners plan to consider Monday a non-binding letter of intent to assist GoTriangle in seeking additional revenue locally and from other community partners to make up a shortfall. The 7 p.m. meeting will be held in Commissioners Chambers on the second floor of the administrative building at 200 E. Main St.
The City Council plans to consider a approving a letter committing to work with Durham County to identify additional local funding for the project. The Dec. 19 meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers at 101 City Hall Plaza.