The Durham City Council unanimously approved a letter of support for the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project, signaling its continued backing as local governments are being asked to help garner millions more for the project.
“The D-O LRT Project is wholeheartedly supported by the city of Durham and is an essential element of our long-range transportation and land-use plans” the letter states. “The project is critical for our region’s continued economic development, environmental sustainability, and the future mobility needs of Durham.”
The letter includes a commitment to work with Durham County to identify additional local funding for the project. In recent weeks, regional transit agency GoTriangle has 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 to help fill a $254 million funding gap in the $1.87 billion project.
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City Councilman Charlie Reece has expressed concern about the increased costs. He voted in favor of the letter Monday night after Councilman Steve Schewel noted how GoTriangle will be spending $6 million on the project between now and April.
In April, the board will be asked to signal its support again as GoTriangle prepares to spend $60 million to $70 million on engineering work on the project. Durham and Orange County governments will be asked to make binding commitments in June 2018.
Reece pledged to stay engaged in the project, to understand the funding alternatives and uphold the fiscal responsibility during the negotiations and conversations about the project.
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 of such projects at 10 percent.
Orange and Durham county commissioners both approved non-binding letters of intent earlier this month. While Orange and Durham counties are being asked to make the commitment, the city is also expected to help fill the funding gap, Mayor Bill Bell has said.
GoTriangle needs the governments’ letters in an application to the Federal Transit Administration due Dec. 31 in order to move the project into engineering. 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.
Meanwhile, the Federal Transit Administration has approved adding a station at N.C. Central University as part of the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project, according to GoTriangle.
With the station at NCCU, which enrolls 8,000 students, the 17.7-mile rail line will stretch from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to NCCU in Durham, connecting three major universities. The entire rail line is expected to support about 26,880 passenger trips per day by 2040.
Recent studies suggest the NCCU station near East Lawson Street and South Alston Avenue could be the most heavily used station in Durham and the second-most popular station overall after the one near UNC Hospitals.