The project hasn’t even begun and GoTriangle wants Orange and Durham counties to commit a lot more money to the Durham-Orange Light Rail project (DOLRT). GoTriangle is asking for $4 million more a year from Orange, $13.5 million from Durham, and $2 million from the D-O Metropolitan Planning Authority’s greenway fund to help fill a $250 million funding gap in the $1.87 billion project.
The gap was created last summer when the state capped funding at 10 percent of project costs; GoTriangle was expecting 25 percent. Yet, GoTriangle waited until last week to ask Orange and Durham to increase their commitment from 25 percent to to 40 percent and wants an answer in two weeks.
For Orange County, that’s $4 million a year, nearly doubling the county’s commitment. The half-cent sales tax for transit that Orange County voters approved in 2012 produces about $5 million per year. The $4 million doesn’t consider costs of more debt, higher interest rates or likely overruns.
If approved, taxpayers could see a 10 percent increase in their county taxes over the next few years. That’s from the combination of the increase for transit, the bonds that voters just approved and a planned increase in recycling fees.
Before committing more money to DOLRT, the county commissioners could ask for an explanation. After all, it’s a lot more money than voters expected, there are alternatives that could make more sense. Plus the commissioners haven’t said where the additional money would come from. Such a review is permitted under the contracts that bind Orange with Durham, GoTriangle and the MPO. It could create a project delay – something that GoTriangle should have considered when they decided to wait to announce their funding shortfall.
A reasonable review would assess ridership projections, financial assumptions, risks, and alternatives. Ideally it would examine how changes in development and land use have impacted demand, and how technology is impacting service and cost. It might even consider the economics – after all, unlike Durham, LRT does not serve the downtown areas in Orange County or advance local goals for affordable housing or walk/bike-ability. For the review to be legitimate, it must be performed by a qualified agency that’s independent of GoTriangle and other organizations with a vested interest in the project.
An independent review could help resolve conflicting views on ridership, service levels and costs. Our needs have changed dramatically since the project was first envisioned nearly 30 years ago. Commuters need a lot more than service between Durham and UNC. Plus working assumptions about ridership, service, and cost need to be updated to reflect the impact of personalized services like Uber/Lyft, driverless buses and even telecommuting. Wake and Chapel Hill have a lot of new information on the economics of bus rapid transit (BRT), demonstrating that BRT provides the benefits of LRT at a fraction of the cost.
An independent, meaningful evaluation of costs, risks and alternatives is possible – but only if voters ask for it. If nothing happens, commissioners will assume that voters want DOLRT at any cost, and commit the additional funds while we’re shopping for the holidays.
Commissioners need to hear from you now. Letters, phone calls, community meetings all help. Involve your friends and neighbors too. Please let the commissioners know you expect a thorough, independent review of DOLRT before any more funds are committed, and that a project delay is acceptable if that what it takes.
You can write to the commissioners at OCBoCC@orangecountync.gov.
You also have the right to speak for yourself or an organization that you represent on Monday, Dec. 5, when the commissioners will discuss whether or not to commit the additional monies to DOLRT. The meeting is 7 p.m. at the Whitted Building, 300 Tryon St. in Hillsborough).
In addition to your own action, please sign and circulate this petition: http://nando.com/4b7
Bonnie Hauser contributed this column on behalf of the grassroots organization, Orange County Voice.