Duke can’t support Durham-Orange light rail without changes, president says in letter

Duke University wants to be a partner in the Durham-Orange light-rail project, but needs to resolve concerns about the proposed route in front of its medical center on Erwin Road and through downtown, its president told local leaders in two letters this week.

The letters come as the project is nearing a critical Dec. 31 deadline. GoTriangle officials will submit the final application to the Federal Transit Administration for a $1.2 billion construction grant early next year.

University President Vincent Price said in a letter Monday to Durham County Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs and Durham Mayor Steve Schewel that the currently proposed route’s risks to community health, safety and economic well-being are too great.

“We deeply wish it were otherwise, and that after decades of planning we were not left in this unfortunate position now, as external deadlines for project financing force us into risky public decision making,” Price said. “I assure you that, if the outstanding issues can be definitively resolved in a straightforward and mutually agreeable way, Duke will be an eager and avid advocate for the region-wide transit plan that we hope will be a national model.”

The Durham-Orange light-rail line would run 17.7 miles from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham. Several of the 19 proposed stations would serve Duke, its hospital and medical facilities.

Duke President Vincent Price Chris Hildreth Duke Photography

Jacobs, Schewel and Commissioner Ellen Reckhow met Tuesday with Price to talk about Duke land donations that will move the $2.47 billion light rail project forward. They had a good discussion, Jacobs said, and were able to get the remaining issues on the table.

“I think at this point we feel confident that with our staffs being able to really work together at the staff level that we can resolve all of the concerns that Duke has,” she said.

Price followed Tuesday’s meeting with another letter to Jacobs and Schewel, in which he again outlined Duke’s concerns but reiterated its vital interest “in the success of Durham and the region” and in “solving the urgent matter of transit for the entire community.”

He is appointing Duke Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III as the principal liaison for the project, with “sole authority to provide information and make decisions on all operational issues,” Price said.

“I hope that these outstanding issues can be definitively resolved in a straightforward and mutually agreeable way,” he said. “At that point, I will be in a position to recommend that the Board of Trustees act favorably on your request for a voluntary contribution of land and rights of way at the appropriate time.”

The meeting follows a Nov. 16 letter to President Price from U.S. Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield, Democrats representing Durham and Orange counties. The letter asks Duke’s Board of Trustees to donate the necessary land soon.

Congressmen: Delay not an option

Federal Transit Administration officials will be in town Nov. 27 to review the project’s finances and details. The project could receive a final score early next year, around the time GoTriangle submits the final application for $1.2 billion in federal dollars.

A Board of Trustees meeting Nov. 30 will be the university’s last chance to commit land for the project, Price and Butterfield said in the letter. Delaying the light-rail application is not an option, they said.

“There are currently more than 75 projects nationwide at various stages in the Capital Investment Grants program, and failing to advance through the pipeline on schedule can be fatal for a project given the limited federal funding available,” they said. “Simply put, without an agreement in place by the end of the year, there is a very real chance that a regional light rail system will not be built.”

GoTriangle must secure the project’s local and federal money by November 2019 to meet the deadline for $190 million in state funding.

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Duke’s concerns

President Price outlined several critical concerns, including a plan to close the Blackwell Street downtown railroad crossing and raise Pettigrew Street so the light-rail tracks can run parallel to an existing freight rail line.

Durham Performing Arts Center general manager Bob Klaus, American Tobacco Campus development director Mark Stanford and Durham Bulls Vice President Mike Birling have said the plan would harm the connection between their properties and downtown’s core. GoTriangle is working on a “signature civic space” that also could provide a pedestrian connection.

Price agreed closing Blackwell Street “would be devastating to downtown Durham’s dynamic mixed-use environment.”

A drawing shows how the Durham-Orange light-rail tracks could be laid along Erwin Road near the Durham VA Medical Center and Duke University Medical Center. Inset B shows the previous plan for the tracks and Erwin Road station; Inset A shows the revised plan. GoTriangle Contributed

“The last-minute decision to close Blackwell Street — and the lack of a consensus and funding for a signature civic space to fill the gap — risks severing that critical connection and bifurcating one of Durham’s most vibrant areas,” he said. “We are hard pressed to support this action and urge you to dedicate the time and resources to find a way now to ensure that downtown can continue to grow and thrive.”

Price also raised issues about the light-rail system’s Erwin Road alignment, which would pass just steps from Duke Hospital — the city’s only Level 1 trauma center — and a number of medical and research facilities. It also would serve the Durham VA Medical Center.

Although the latest plan elevates the light-rail tracks above Erwin Road, from roughly LaSalle Street to the Ninth Street station, Price said the concrete barriers and piers that will be needed “create difficult and perhaps dangerous conditions” for ambulances attempting to weave through heavy traffic.

Duke also remains concerned about how noise, vibrations and road closures for construction could affect patients and medical and research facilities, Price said. Advance testing and analysis must ensure there won’t be negative consequences, he said, and a 100-foot buffer must be preserved around the Global Health Research Building.

“We estimate [road closures] will result in a quick and substantial reduction in patient care volume and revenue that will cause severe budget pressures at Duke University Health System,” Price said. “The result will be the loss of hundreds, perhaps thousands of jobs at all levels.”

Duke also hasn’t gotten an approved Duke Energy plan that guarantees a vital hospital utility line won’t be interrupted, he said, or a solution to an at-grade crossing at Erwin Road and Cameron Boulevard that could conflict with rush-hour and special event traffic.

GoTriangle has agreed to take another look at elevating the section of track that will cross the Erwin-Cameron intersection, Price said. A traffic study expected in the next few weeks also could provide more information.

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GoTriangle responds

GoTriangle General Manager Jeff Mann responded to President Price’s letter in a statement Tuesday. GoTriangle staff also issued a four-page memorandum addressing each of Duke’s concerns.

“We provided responses to the concerns that Duke President Vincent Price raised in that letter,” Mann said. “Duke leadership is now reviewing those responses, and GoTriangle awaits any follow-up replies. Once we receive an additional response from Duke, the GoTriangle Board of Trustees will review and determine next steps as needed.”

GoTriangle and Durham’s elected leaders have said there is no viable alternative to the Erwin Road route.

Duke is one of several private and public partners being asked to contribute over $102 million in land and cash to the project. UNC and NCCU donated 25 parcels — worth $14.5 million — last month. The Durham VA Medical Center also will contribute land to the project, interim project manager John Tallmadge has said.

Duke’s anticipated contribution could be worth at least $16.5 million, Mann said Monday. Private and developer money would make up the rest. Jacobs noted “a tremendous amount” of private-sector interest in station naming rights.

Durham and Orange counties are paying the local costs with proceeds from a half-cent sales tax and car rental and registration fees. Durham County would pay $796 million and Orange County would pay $149.5 million toward construction, plus an estimated $847 million to $908 million in interest on short- and long-term loans.

Durham County, where most of the light rail line would be built, has agreed to pay 81.5 percent of the interest payments; Orange County would pay 18.5 percent.

Price and Butterfield noted in their letter to President Price that the project already has overcome several setbacks, including a steep cut in expected state funding. Jacobs noted Tuesday that Duke’s leadership has a history of supporting the light-rail project.

“We know that there have been concerns about Erwin Road, but there’s never been any statement before from Duke leadership that the Erwin Road alignment was an absolute deal killer,” Jacobs said. “That’s why we’ve been working so hard to try to meet all of Duke’s concerns related to Erwin Road, because we do not want to interrupt their hospital operations or any of their facilities.”