Several changes have evolved as transit officials worked out the kinks in the Durham-Orange light-rail plan, including one that would close a downtown railroad crossing and another that would route trains under a major intersection.
GoTriangle released an updated report this week on how proposed changes could affect the 17.7-mile rail line between UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University in Durham. The changes reflect Federal Transit Administration and public feedback, GoTriangle officials said, as well as cost-saving measures and changes made since the 2016 report.
The regional transit agency will hold three meetings in Durham and Chapel Hill, beginning Saturday, where the public can review the changes, ask questions and offer more feedback. Comments about the revised plan should be submitted by Nov. 30.
The light-rail system is expected to provide commuters with another transportation option but also drive future development, project officials have said. The latest plan increases the travel time from one end of the line to the other — from 44 to 46 minutes one way to 52 to 54 minutes.
The report — and pending public feedback — is a requirement of the final engineering phase. GoTriangle has to submit an application for federal funding by April, in order to meet a November 2019 state deadline. The FTA’s final decision is expected by September.
FTA officials are reviewing the revised project now, looking at financial estimates, cost projections and other details, GoTriangle’s interim project director John Tallmadge said Thursday.
A review last year gave the project a “medium-high” rating on current capital and operations. However, FTA officials questioned the optimistic outlook of some revenue and cost projections, giving a “medium-low” rating to GoTriangle’s financial estimates.
FTA officials will decide how much of a contingency fund should be set aside for unexpected expenses, Tallmadge said. Recent project changes have reduced the current contingency fund from 30 percent to 20 percent of the project’s budget.
Durham city and county officials are planning for how to fill the gap if the FTA asks for more, he said.
Durham and Orange county commissioners could make their next decisions early next year, when they will be asked to approve updated bus and rail transit plans and a new cost-sharing agreement. The cost-sharing plan reflects Durham’s recent decision to fill a $57.6 million state funding gap.
The light-rail project is still on schedule to start construction in 2020, with an opening date in 2028, Tallmadge said.
Paying for light rail
Federal funding is necessary to cover half of the project’s $2.47 billion construction cost. The state could pay 7.7 percent, or $190 million, with roughly $102 million expected to come from private donations.
The nonprofit GoTransit Partners anticipates $41.4 million in land donations for the project and $61.1 million in financial contributions. So far, UNC and NCCU have confirmed they will donate a total of 25 parcels — worth $14.5 million — to the project.
The Durham VA Medical Center also will contribute land, but federal rules prevent GoTriangle from counting that as part of the private donations, Tallmadge said. There are other land and cash donations in the works, he said, but nothing that can be announced yet.
Durham County and Orange County would pick up the remaining costs, plus interest payments on short- and long-term debt. Durham has agreed to pay $796 million and Orange County to pay $149.5 million. Durham has agreed to pay 81.5 percent of any interest on debt, currently estimated at $847 million to $908 million; Orange County would pay 18.5 percent.
The local share is being paid for with money from a half-cent sales tax and car rental and registration fees.
The latest changes are meant to keep project costs in line, provide better pedestrian and bike access, and get the most benefit from future station-area development, officials said. Another goal is to reduce potential conflicts between cars and trains, they said.
Some changes could happen systemwide, including the use of smaller station platforms that serve two train cars instead of three. Others affect specific stations, parking lots and rail segments, such as switching to a single-track bridge across New Hope Creek.
A major change would put light-rail trains on an elevated track from roughly LaSalle Street to the Ninth Street Station. Another would change how traffic flows around downtown Durham.
GoTriangle has worked with the Durham VA Medical Center, Duke University Medical Center and others along the route to avoid conflicts with hospital utilities and emergency access, while also limiting the amount of land that’s needed. A $90 million change will run the trains on elevated tracks from roughly LaSalle Street to the Ninth Street Station.
A plan revived last year to add a 19th station — the Blackwell Mangum Station at the Durham Performing Arts Center — on Pettigrew Street is still under consideration.
Meanwhile, engineers have noted an issue in that same area with plans to run the light-rail tracks parallel to an existing freight rail line. The plans would require raising Pettigrew Street by several feet so larger vehicles don’t get stuck, but it’s not possible because of the historic W.T. Blackwell Bull Durham building at that intersection, Tallmadge said.
The proposed solution: Close the railroad crossing at Corcoran, Blackwell and Pettigrew streets, and re-route downtown traffic. One-way southbound traffic has been proposed for Dillard Street and two-way traffic for Ramseur Street, now part of the Downtown Loop.
However, that plan creates a new conflict first reported last month in the Indy weekly newspaper.
DPAC general manager Bob Klaus, American Tobacco Campus development director Mark Stanford and Durham Bulls Vice President Mike Birling have told the Durham City Council in a letter that the plan to close the crossing would harm the connection between their properties and the city’s downtown core. They asked the council to delay light rail construction until there’s a better solution.
GoTriangle is working with Downtown Durham Inc. and other stakeholders now on a “signature civic space” that also could provide a pedestrian connection between the American Tobacco campus and downtown, Tallmadge said.
Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway
The revised plan avoids the need to widen University Drive by moving the Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway Station from the median to the road’s shoulder. The result also is shorter street crossings and more bike and pedestrian connections.
The change also reduces the number of park-and-ride spaces planned for a shopping center at that intersection. The move also saves millions that otherwise would be spent buying a larger portion of the shopping center.
South Square Station
The biggest change is the addition of an underpass at the nearby Shannon Road and University Drive intersection. The change avoids significant conflicts between cars and rail trains, while creating a better alignment for the South Square Station.
Additional parking also is planned at the South Square Station, which planners think will be more popular because of the changes to the Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway Station.
Alston Avenue/NCCU Station
A cost-cutting step replaces a planned parking deck for transit riders with a park-and-ride lot. The revised plan also makes slight changes to the light-rail design along Alston Avenue and side streets to limit the effect on surrounding property.
The revised plan also removes proposed rail storage tracks at the NCCU Station and moves it closer to the Lawson Street intersection. GoTriangle officials have said that and other adjustments also would improve pedestrian and bike access.
GoTriangle has planned three meetings for the public to review changes to the Durham-Orange light-rail project, ask questions and offer feedback. The meetings will be held:
▪ Saturday, Nov. 3, from noon to 2 p.m. at SpringHill Suites by Marriott, 5310 McFarland Drive, Durham
▪ Monday, Nov. 5, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Extraordinary Ventures, 200 S. Elliott Road, Chapel Hill
▪ Thursday, Nov. 8, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Monument of Faith Church, 900 Simmons St. in Durham
Comments also can be submitted in writing until Nov. 30 online; via email at email@example.com; or by mail at GoTriangle, ATTN: SEA Proposed Project Refinements, P.O. Box 13787, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709.