GoTriangle report: Duke put one hurdle after another in path of Durham-Orange light-rail

A GoTriangle report released just days before a critical decision says meetings with Duke University to talk about the $3.3 billion Durham-Orange light-rail project ”began to reveal bizarre contradictions, complications, and a general dissatisfaction” after 15 years of collaboration.

The report also says Duke staff members rarely attended planning meetings after 2015, delayed critical information about their needs, and only in recent months raised concerns about how the light-rail system might affect sensitive medical and research equipment.

GoTriangle spokesman Mike Charbonneau provided the report, “D-O LRT and Duke: A Brief History,” in response to questions from The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. Duke’s Board of Trustees is being asked to decide by Thursday whether it will support the light-rail route and donate land for it along Erwin Road.

Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and community relations, could not be reached about the report Tuesday.

In an email Friday he said Duke officials still are reviewing data about possible electromagnetic interference from the light-rail system. Talks with GoTriangle are continuing, he added.

Without Duke’s support, the 17.7-mile light-rail line connecting UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, downtown Durham and N.C. Central University could die before it is submitted April 30 to the Federal Transit Administration for a $1.23 billion grant. Campus and community members have rallied and written Duke leaders in recent weeks asking them to keep the project moving.

Meanwhile, GoTriangle officials have been considering a Duke request made in December for a $1 billion insurance policy protecting its medical and research operations against direct or indirect light-rail damages, the report says. A Feb. 19 memo from GoTriangle light-rail project manager John Tallmadge said Duke is now asking for a $2 billion insurance policy.

That is “unacceptable,” Tallmadge said. He noted that Durham and GoTriangle officials met with Duke President Vincent Price on Feb. 8 and asked if his mind was made up.

“He replied that it was unlikely that he could be made comfortable, but that the odds were not zero and that they would continue to work in good faith on the issues,” Tallmadge said.

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The report also rebuts Price’s statement in a November letter to GoTriangle and Durham officials that Duke never agreed to a light-rail route in front of its medical center on Erwin Road.

Several years of documents submitted to the FTA show that Duke, unlike other community and university partners, only mentioned one concern: where a station that serves the Duke and Durham VA medical centers is located.

Duke officials “strongly prefer” a light-rail station between Trent and Flowers drives, “as it is more consistent with the university’s Master Plan,” Duke Executive Vice President Tallman Trask is quoted as saying in a 2015 letter.

Moving the Duke/VA station is one of several changes GoTriangle has made to meet Duke’s expectations, the report says. GoTriangle also has studied noise and vibration concerns, it says, and elevated the planned light-rail track along Erwin Road at a cost of $90 million to avoid conflicts with a critical hospital power line, traffic and emergency access to the hospital.

GoTriangle also studied an alternative to Erwin Road parallel to the Durham Freeway, which Trask suggested in September 2018, but it would affect two cemeteries and the historically African-American Crest Street neighborhood near the Durham VA Medical Center.

“These efforts to work with Duke have cost Durham residents millions of dollars in taxes and fees,” it says.

Only one question

The report notes that Trask, whom Price named Duke’s light-rail representative in November 2018, has been involved in the talks since 2000 when he and other members of a policy committee agreed to consider a rail line running along Erwin Road.

Tallman Trask.jpg
Tallman Trask III Jared Lazarus/Duke University Contributed

The project stalled until state lawmakers authorized Durham and Orange counties in 2009 to levy a half-cent sales tax for transit projects. Durham and Orange voters approved the tax, respectively, in 2011 and 2012.

The only question remaining about Erwin Road in 2013, the report says, was where to put the Duke-VA medical centers station. Duke and GoTriangle officials met roughly 10 times over the next two years to talk about Erwin Road, the station and Duke’s concerns, it says.

Trask did not object to running the light rail on Duke land and was aware that right-of-way would need to be negotiated, GoTriangle reported in October 2014. The following January, the report says, he indicated Duke “would consider providing land.”

That year was the first time GoTriangle heard Duke’s concerns about the importance of preserving tree buffers at the Washington Duke Inn and Golf Club, the report says. The light-rail route runs between the golf course and U.S. 15-501 near Cameron Avenue.

In August 2015, GoTriangle released environmental studies of the proposed route for public comment before seeking FTA approval to continue planning.

The preferred alternative submitted to the FTA “was the culmination of more than a decade of discussion, which had always included Erwin Road as a key part of the transit corridor,” the report says. “Well over 1,000 comments were received on the DEIS [draft environmental impact statement] during the 45-day public comment period. No comments were received from Duke University on the DEIS or any subsequent Supplemental Environmental Assessments.”

GoTriangle continued to meet regularly throughout 2015 with university, hospital and community representatives, the report says. UNC and NCCU staff actively participated in those meetings, it says, but Duke staff members rarely attended.

Elevated tracks, electrical issues

By late 2016, GoTriangle was preparing to submit the project for FTA approval to enter the engineering phase. At that point, the route would be set, and financial, construction and operations plans would be finalized.

GoTriangle notes that on July 22, 2016, staff met with a Duke official who appeared “more interested in arguing about whether the light-rail project was viable” than in working on its design.

Duke officials continued to emphasize protecting their vital power supply line and emergency access to the hospital. They also noted a potential conflict with the future Lenox Baker Pediatric Rehab Center that summer and agreed to provide project plans to GoTriangle, it says. GoTriangle still had not received those plans in January 2018, it says.

In November 2017, Duke and Durham VA officials got their first look at the elevated Erwin Road route, which a Duke electrical engineer had suggested. Officials with both medical centers and the university were concerned about building the light-rail tracks on the street, the report says, and also asked about taking another look at the possibility of a station in front of the medical centers.

The final plan leaves the Duke-Durham VA Station at Trent and Flowers drives.

Tree protection

Once the elevated tracks were designed to preserve emergency access to the hospital, the report notes, Duke officials began citing tree protection as their primary concern. The light-rail route could be adjusted at that point, but not moved from the Erwin Road corridor without starting the entire federal process over again.

“Duke University requested that the light rail alignment remain off Duke University property from west of LaSalle Street heading east at a minimum, but possibly all the way down Erwin Road based on the impact to the Duke Forest protected trees,” the report says.

That November 2017 meeting also was the first time Duke and GoTriangle officials had significant talks about the potential effects of noise, vibrations and electromagnetic interference, the report says. GoTriangle asked Duke to provide a list of sensitive buildings and equipment, the report says; Duke officials questioned the need for light-rail vibration studies and the Buchanan Boulevard Station.

Light-rail trains generate electromagnetic radiation because they get power from high-voltage overhead guidelines and return it to traction power substations through the rails. They also cause temporary changes in the earth’s geomagnetic field as they travel. Some electromagnetic radiation is expected, but too much can cause problems for sensitive equipment, like MRI and diagnostic scanners.

Duke also wants to set a threshold for construction-related vibration that “is 40 times more stringent than the standard for especially sensitive operating rooms,” Tallmadge said in the Feb. 19 memo.

GoTriangle has offered several ideas, including the creation of a website and app to monitor construction sites and Duke facilities, alerting contractors if work exceeds set levels and stopping the work. The agency also is looking at electromagnetic interference reduction technology that the Maryland Transit Administration is installing on its Purple Line light rail route.

Shifting Duke concerns

Duke raised other concerns as engineering work advanced in 2018, including the possibility that the light-rail train might make Duke employees who still drive late for work.

Duke officials also questioned how the elevated tracks would affect the medical center’s appearance and how a buffer would be maintained around the Global Health Research Building on Erwin Road.

Duke officials initially told GoTriangle that a 250-foot buffer was required, but that Duke had gotten permission for a 198-foot buffer, the report says. But when a GoTriangle consultant questioned the distance in June 2018 and asked about working with the building’s security officer, the report says Monte Brown, Duke’s vice president of administration, said he wouldn’t “waste staff’s time right now since the Board of Trustees will never approve the design because of tree impacts.”

Brown, who also was responsible for getting the Lenox Baker plans to GoTriangle, produced the security requirements for the research building in November 2018. He also expressed concerns that using pre-emption technology, which gives emergency vehicles the right of way in traffic, to navigate the piers holding up elevated light-rail tracks might not work for hospital traffic from other counties.

In September 2018, the report says, Trask told GoTriangle officials that some Duke trustees would oppose elevated tracks regardless of their design. Trask and Tallamadge, the light-rail project manager, met Nov. 26 to talk about the project, and agreed to share information about the possible effect of vibrations, noise and electromagnetic interference on Duke buildings and equipment, it says.

Tallmadge also asked if Duke’s trustees could consider a property donation agreement as a show of their commitment to the project, the report says. Trask said he would talk with Price and the trustees; GoTriangle sent him a copy of the donation agreement Nov. 29 as FTA officials arrived to conduct their final project review.

A revised version that addresses construction vibration and electromagnetic interference was sent to Duke on Feb. 15, Tallmadge said.

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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.