Durham legislators warn Duke light-rail decision could ‘fracture’ town-gown relations

A rendering of a proposed light rail station for downtown Durham.
A rendering of a proposed light rail station for downtown Durham.

Three Durham legislators are calling on Duke University to reconsider backing out of the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project.

Duke’s decision last week not to sign a cooperative agreement with GoTriangle needed for the light rail corridor “will likely end the possibility of including light rail in the region’s comprehensive transportation plans,” wrote N.C. Sen. Mike Woodard, Rep. Marcia Morey and Rep. Zack Hawkins in a letter Monday.

The previously estimated $3.3 billion project, including interest, would connect UNC-Chapel Hill with Duke, downtown Durham and end at N.C. Central University.

GoTriangle already has spent over $130 million on project studies and planning for the 17.7 mile rail line. None of that money will be reimbursed if the Federal Transit Administration rejects a $1.23 billion grant for the light-rail project.

Without Duke, it’s unclear how the light-rail project can advance.

GoTriangle could buy Duke’s land through eminent domain, but that likely would involved a protracted and expensive court battle, lasting well past the April 30 deadline for submitting the FTA grant application.

Even with the land, it’s unclear how GoTriangle could continue to build the system in collaboration with Duke after such a fight.

Also unclear is how Durham County could pay the project’s growing cost. The county previously said it would absorb a $57.6 million shortfall in anticipated state funding last summer. Last-minute changes added a tunnel and two bridges through downtown Durham. FTA officials have said that could cost at least $237 million, all of which would be Durham County’s cost under the cost-sharing agreement with Orange County.

Durham County also might have to pick up the cost of any eminent domain battle for Duke’s land, since Orange County has capped its light-rail costs at $149.5 million, plus interest on its share of the debt.

During a rally Thursday, Feb. 7, at the Durham Station, representatives from many community groups called upon Duke University to resolve concerns with GoTriangle and approve the land donation to the Durham-Orange light rail project.

Woodard, Morey and Hawkins said they were “extremely disappointed” in Duke’s decision.

“A delay in the DOLRT project at this critical juncture will likely end the possibility of including light rail in the region’s comprehensive transportation plans. It will certainly mean DOLRT loses it place in the queue for federal consideration and will likely jeopardize hard-fought state funding,” they wrote.

The letter goes to to say that “this action by Duke officials will damage the decades of good work that has gone into strengthening the relationship between Duke and its hometown. All of us have played a role in developing this critical relationship, and we are saddened to think that this decision could fracture town-gown relations as we move forward.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.