GoTriangle now has 2 light-rail contracts in hand, after Chapel Hill concerns addressed

A concept illustration shows a train arriving at a future Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit station in downtown Durham.
A concept illustration shows a train arriving at a future Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit station in downtown Durham. Courtesy of GoTriangle

One of roughly a dozen critical Durham-Orange light rail agreements was approved late Wednesday after a two-hour discussion, mostly about when the agreement might expire.

The Chapel Hill Town Council first saw the agreement, which outlines town policies and standards that GoTriangle would follow if the light-rail transit project is built, last week.

The vote was delayed to this week to give town staff time to ensure the agreement covered the community’s interest in stormwater and noise controls, how large traction power substation boxes could look and project oversight.

The planned 17.7-mile light-rail line will connect UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham. Only six stops are in Chapel Hill; three are on UNC property.

On Wednesday, council members voted unanimously to approve a revised agreement that would expire three months after a Federal Transit Administration funding decision, instead of Dec. 31, 2021.

The vote followed a Durham City Council vote late Monday to approve a similar agreement, but with the 2021 deadline.

The Chapel Hill deadline was a compromise between members concerned the later date would allow GoTriangle to keep spending money even if the project doesn’t receive federal funding next year, and GoTriangle officials concerned about how another delay could affect the project’s FTA score.

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The FTA has given GoTriangle until the end of next week to provide more information about its critical agreements, including agreements with Duke University, which still is negotiating with GoTriangle about light rail on Erwin Road.

If an agreement hits a snag, the FTA will consider that additional risk and require a higher contingency budget to cover it.

Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger pushed for a council vote Wednesday, “because adding a contingency fund amount on there that’s big makes the project cost even more, and more money has to go to that than to the project.”

The deadline does not affect GoTriangle’s ability to spend money on the project, because that is controlled by an interlocal agreement between GoTriangle’s Board of Directors and the Orange and Durham county commissioners. That agreement states that the parties will meet within 15 days if the project runs into problems and decide how to move forward.

Since a decision may not be reached right away, the Chapel Hill deadline gives the partners time to talk about their options. The state has set a November 2019 deadline for having the project funding in place, or it may not receive state funding.

A crane lowers a 40-ton traction power substation into place for the Denver FasTracks light-rail system. The substation, similar to the substations that would be place along the Durham-Orange light rail line, is about the size of a small mobile home. Denver FasTracks Contributed

Council member Michael Parker noted that the federal government is not bound by the state deadline and has delayed some funding agreements for transit projects in the past few months.

“I think that the reality is it’s not so much that the feds would decline to fund this, so much as they might not make that decision within the timeframe imposed by the state legislature, because that’s what the November 2019 deadline is all about,” Parker said. “It has nothing to do with the FTA. I think what GoTriangle is trying to achieve here is some breathing space.”

Other concerns included noise, particularly at the planned Rail Maintenance and Operations Facility on 25 acres between Farrington Road and Interstate 40, and how rail transformer boxes — roughly the size of a small mobile home — would look.

The rail facility is inside the Durham city limits, so Chapel Hill does not have any authority over how it is zoned or built, but council members were concerned about how it could affect nearby neighbors who do live in the town.

The Durham City Council also rezoned the land for the rail center on Monday.

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Interim project director John Tallmadge assured the council that light-rail noises would fall within acceptable ranges under the town’s noise ordinance. GoTriangle analyzed the potential noise as part of the required federal environmental study and will do live noise testing before launching the rail service, he said. Any problems will be resolved, and additional testing is planned over time, he added.

The noise ordinance does make exceptions for public safety, which means the train’s bell won’t be regulated, he said, but there won’t be any noise issues at Creekside Elementary School, which is a quarter-mile from the rail facility. The wheels could squeal as they make tight turns at the rail facility, but Tallmadge said that will be mitigated by lubricating the rails and wheels.

“The sound generated by those is significantly quieter than a city bus accelerating down the street,” he added. “We’ve had difficulty getting people to believe that message, understand that message, but that’s the fact.”

GoTriangle also will submit its transformer boxes to the town’s Community Design Commission advisory appearance review, Tallmadge said. Three boxes will be installed along the light rail line in Chapel Hill: two on UNC’s campus and one near Stancell Drive off N.C. 54.

GoTriangle staff also will work with the town to give regular updates and hold workshops related to the design and construction process, he said.

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Durham vote

The Durham City Council also made a few changes to its agreement before voting unanimously Monday to approve its GoTriangle cooperation agreement.

City Attorney Patrick Baker sent council members a memo Monday that adjusted language in the city’s agreement with GoTriangle to reflect that the downtown light rail plan is not final. The city will advise GoTriangle about the plan, which will need final approval by the GoTriangle Board of Trustees.

Also Monday, DPAC General Manager Bob Klaus wrote a letter to the mayor and city manager opposing GoTriangle’s plan to close Blackwell Street to cars. Blackwell and Mangum streets are listed as a possible 19th light-rail stop on the 17.7-mile route. It would be the third downtown Durham stop along with Durham Station and Dillard Street.

Baker wrote that the city agreement with GoTriangle could authorize closing and reconfiguring theses road if needed for light-rail construction:

One-way West Pettigrew Street eastbound from East Chapel Hill Street to South Dillard Street.

Two-way Ramseur Street from South Dillard Street to East Chapel Hill Street.

Raising West Pettigrew Street’s profile as required to provide safe rail crossings.

Closing Blackwell Street at the North Carolina Railroad rail crossing.

One-way South Dillard Street southbound at the North Carolina Railroad rail crossing.

Alter intersections including Gregson Street, Duke Street, Blackwell Street, South Mangum Street, Vivian Street, South Dillard Street, and Grant Street, as required to allow for safe rail crossings.

Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson told a resident in an email Monday that the council had not received a formal request to close Blackwell Street, and called it a subject of “ongoing negotiation.”

Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.