Durham council member proposes eminent domain if Duke opposes light rail right-of-way

Duke faculty, on the eve of a critical decision, called Tuesday night on university leaders to support the $3.3 billion Durham-Orange Light-Rail project.

A Durham City Council member also floated the idea of taking Duke land for the light-rail project by eminent domain.

Duke is the last local partner that needs to sign a cooperative agreement with GoTriangle for the 17.7-mile light-rail line between Chapel Hill and Durham. The plan also depends on Duke donating land for the light-rail corridor on Erwin Road. Without Duke’s participation, the light-rail project is unlikely to advance to a federal funding application.

University officials are being asked to at least make a firm commitment to the project by Thursday.

“How can the very economic trajectory of our region be determined by one wealthy, private landowner? Is this consistent with the moniker of being the most progressive city in the South?” City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton told The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun.

“Why hasn’t the specter of using eminent domain to obtain the land needed from Duke been publicly raised? If light rail is truly all it is billed to be then how can we allow it not to happen?” Middleton wrote in a statement he sent to the newspapers Tuesday night.

“I don’t want to hear any more bellyaching from GoTriangle, nor prompting or cajoling from public officials about black folk going hat in hand to Duke begging for our economic future while not boldly and redemptively using the power that made us beggars in the first place,” Middleton said. “We’ve heard the case; now show us how serious you really are. Welcome to the unsexy part of the actual work of racial equity.”

Faculty statement

The Duke Faculty Union, in “an urgently considered vote,” overwhelmingly supported the statement urging Duke to back the project and help improve transportation “for the most marginalized members of society.”

Union President Christopher Shreve released the statement in an email Tuesday. In it, Duke faculty noted the years of hard work planning the light-rail system and the need to bring federal dollars home to meet the Triangle’s goals of “green infrastructure and improved access to medical facilities, schools, and shopping centers.”

“The economic and social benefits that a reliable, affordable, and convenient transit system will make are undisputed,” the statement said. “The vast majority of local organizations, businesses, and academic institutions have enthusiastically put their support behind this well-researched, carefully planned project. As the largest employer in Durham, Duke University and its affiliated Health Systems stand to gain tremendously from the increased access to and from campuses, hospitals, downtown, and neighboring universities.”

The Faculty Union represents instructors and lecturing fellows in Duke’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Graduate School and Center for Documentary Studies. Faculty with Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment sent a similar letter to Duke administrators Friday asking for them to reconsider their position on light rail.

Critics of the light-rail plan also have petitioned Duke, asking it to continue opposing the project, which they said is too expensive, connects too little of the Triangle and does nothing to ease congestion, pollution or increasing gentrification.

‘Heirs of Hayti’

Middleton called on the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods), the People’s Alliance, N.C. Central University, Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit and the Durham Housing Authority to make their case not just to Duke, but to “ask those of us entrusted with immense power where our land grabbing, tunnel digging resolve has gone.”

“How dare we look the heirs of Hayti in the face after a decade of raising expectations only to once again dash hopes by mortgaging our city’s future off to a powerful private institution,” he said. “Duke has been and will continue to be a beloved partner in Durham’s future. They should not, however, determine our future.”

“If light rail dies it won’t be because Duke killed it. It will be because Duke was allowed to kill it,” Middleton said.

Earlier this week, leaders at NCCU, the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, Durham Technical Community College and the Durham Housing Authority held a press conference touting their support for light rail.

Henry McKoy, an instructor in the NCCU School of Business and a representative of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People said on Monday that light rail could “bring back economic development that’s been missing for so long” in the Hayti area.

Middleton said when he and the rest of the City Council approved the rail operations maintenance facility rezoning in South Durham, parcels of that rezoned land were acquired through eminent domain.

“What makes Duke University so different?” Middleton asked.

Neighbors of the rail yard have filed a lawsuit over the rezoning.

The railroad

Meanwhile, the North Carolina Railroad sent a letter to GoTriangle on Tuesday saying they are committed to signing a 100-year lease upon approval of final engineering plans. North Carolina Railroad owns the rail corridor operated by Norfolk Southern.

North Carolina Railroad Chair Michael P. Walters and North Carolina Railroad President Scott M. Saylor wrote that they will present the draft lease to the Federal Transit Administration “in good faith as part of your federal funding applications ... to see the project through to completion as the issues between the many parties to GoTriangle’s plan continue to be addressed.”

North Carolina Railroad spokesperson Megen Hoenk said Tuesday they have repeatedly met with GoTriangle to review designs and provide input in more than 30 meetings since January 2018.

“As part of our mission, we are responsible for promoting safety within the railroad corridor for both freight and the thousands of people who ride Amtrak trains daily ... We affirmed our willingness to execute a lease when final terms are agreed to, and final engineered plans and property boundaries are known,” she said.

GoTriangle report

The Duke Faculty statement was issued just one day after GoTriangle released a 20-page report outlining six years of talks with Duke leaders about the light-rail project and how it might affect Duke’s medical and research facilities.

The report and documents submitted to the Federal Transit Administration during that time show Duke did not raise objections to the proposed light-rail route. Duke officials did ask that GoTriangle move a station from the front of the Duke and Durham VA medical centers to a site closer to Trent Drive.

Duke President Vincent Price, in a November letter to Durham and GoTriangle officials, said the university has been trying to work with GoTriangle for years. He cited several lingering concerns, including maintaining emergency access to the hospital, how noise and vibrations from the light rail might affect medical and research facilities, and how road closures could affect traffic around the medical center.

The project’s risks to Durham’s health, safety and economy are too great to move forward, Price said.

The GoTriangle report paints a different picture, noting the conversation with Duke was productive until 2016. Since then, GoTriangle officials said Duke staff rarely have attended planning meetings, delayed critical information about Duke’s needs and only last year raised concerns about how electromagnetic radiation from the light-rail system might affect sensitive medical and research equipment.

The conversation “began to reveal bizarre contradictions, complications, and a general dissatisfaction,” the GoTriangle report said.

Duke officials have not responded to questions about the GoTriangle report. Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and community relations, said in an email Friday they still are reviewing data about possible light-rail electromagnetic interference.

Carrboro alderman Damon Seils, chair of the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro regional transportation group and an employee of the Duke Clinical Research Institute, said GoTriangle and local leaders have made “every effort” to address Duke’s concerns, including the addition last year of a $90 million elevated track to the Erwin Road corridor. They will continue to do what’s needed but are frustrated, he said.

“I think it’s unfortunate we’re at this point in this process — we are at the finish line here — and I think it’s too bad that one important thing that could keep us from crossing that line is a decision by one or two administrators at a private university.”

GoTriangle must meet an April 30 deadline for submitting the project to the Federal Transit Administration for $1.23 billion in funding — half the project’s $2.47 billion construction cost. A federal decision has to be in hand by Nov. 30 to meet a deadline for getting $190 million in state funding.

The uncertainty about Duke’s position creates risks that FTA officials are taking into account as they review the light-rail plans, Seils said. The FTA’s final project score, expected soon, will determine how much money GoTriangle will need to set aside for unexpected costs.

“I don’t want to oversimplify the decision that has to be made,” Seils said. “I know Duke administrators have a lot on their plate to consider here. I think the key is the community partners have been first at the door to help solve problems. What we need from our perspective from Duke is a partner who is also coming to the door to solve problems, not raise new ones.”

The pending deadline puts Durham on a tight timeline and makes it unclear if there is time to pursue an eminent domain of Duke land. Eminent domain would require a third-party appraisal and potentially could end up in court.

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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.