Duke president explains light-rail decision. Feds say cost now up another $237M

Duke’s president is defending the university’s decision not to support the Durham-Orange light-rail project, even as Durham’s mayor says backers may yet pursue eminent domain to make it happen.

In a letter to the Duke community on Thursday, President Vincent Price acknowledged many are now questioning Duke’s support for Durham.

“In this particular case, Duke was asked to make financial, land and other commitments that would have required taking unacceptable risks to the safety of our patients and the public, and the continued viability of our research and health enterprises,” Price said in the letter.

“To do so under the imposed deadline would have abdicated Duke’s responsibility, and my personal responsibility as president, to act prudently in our institutional and public interest.”

The letter reiterated concerns in a letter Price and other university leaders sent GoTriangle on Wednesday, in which they said the project had undergone many changes and faced growing financial challenges.

In particular, Price wrote, “Duke has been consistent about the significant challenges created by placing a rail line down Erwin Road adjacent to a hospital and biomedical research center.”

Price said Duke remains committed to a regional transit network using all available transportation technologies.

But in public emails to media outlets and others, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said GoTriangle remains committed to the light-rail project and doing what it must to obtain necessary rights of way..

“Duke’s decision not to sign the cooperative agreement is a terrible blow to this project and our community,” Schewel wrote one constituent Thursday. “The GoTriangle board of directors is looking at all of its options, including eminent domain, as I have informed President Price of Duke.”

Duke chief spokesman Michael Schoenfeld responded to that possibility in an interview with Spectrum News.

“I expect that they will carefully consider the political and legal costs of making such a move,” he said.

In an email exchange with the News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, declined to comment further on a possible legal fight.

But he did say Duke made its concerns about light rail known in 1999 when then President Nan Keohane stated Duke’s opposition to an elevated track outside the hospital on Erwin Road, according to an article he provided from the campus newspaper The Chronicle.

“Duke University has been supportive of light rail for more than 20 years,” Schoenfeld wrote. “And it is also true that for more than 20 years we have raised concerns about a routing it down Erwin Road adjacent to a hospital and biomedical research center.”

Butterfield, Price respond

Also Thursday the area’s two congressmen weighed in, joining a host of local elected officials’ criticism of the university’s decision.

“Duke is jeopardizing the mobility options of thousands of its neighbors in Orange and Durham counties, especially those in our most marginalized communities,” U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield said in a statement.

“This decision really brings into question Duke’s commitment to be a true community partner,” he continued, calling upon the university to reconsider. “Duke has historically been good for Durham and, most certainly, Durham has been good for Duke. This relationship now appears to be fractured which is very unfortunate.”

U.S. Rep. David Price, who is chairman of the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, noted that the light rail line has been part of a planned regional transportation network that also includes enhanced bus service, bus rapid transit, and Garner-Raleigh-Cary-RTP-Durham commuter rail.

He said GoTriangle has responded in good faith to “ever-escalating demands,” particularly from Duke and the North Carolina Railroad.

As subcommittee chair, Price said: “I am committed to continuing to work with local partners in support of expanding public transit alternatives for our region. But make no mistake: this is a historic setback from which it will take years, if not decades, to recover.”

New project cost estimate

The 17.7 mile light-rail line would connect UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to N.C. Central University in Durham, with stops at Duke, downtown Durham and other planned stations along the way. The light-rail line has been projected to start operating in 2028.

On Thursday, a GoTriangle spokesman said the agency has received updated financial news from federal officials reviewing the plan.

Because of a new tunnel and other design changes in downtown Durham to address railroad safety concerns and unresolved agreements like with Duke, GoTriangle must now add $237 million to project costs and contingency, GoTriangle spokesman Mike Charbonneau said in an email.

That raises the project’s estimated construction costs from $2.47 billion to nearly $2.71 billion.

But the federal Department of Transportation also said projected borrowing costs have been too conservative and that there will likely be savings from lower, long-term interest rates. GoTriangle is evaluating how that will affect the financial plan, Charbonneau said.

The total cost of construction plus interest on the debt has previously been estimated at $3.3 billion.

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