Durham-Orange light-rail is dead. Could funds raised be used for more buses?

While some Triangle residents mourned the death of the Durham-Orange light-rail project Thursday, others were busy suggesting what to do with the billions of dollars that would have paid for it.

The 18-mile light-rail line succumbed after decades of planning and over $130 million spent to a variety of challenges. Duke University’s refusal to stay the course may have been the final straw, but there also were growing costs, state deadlines and railroad companies’ reluctance to sign a cooperative agreement and lease land for the rail line.

The GoTriangle Board of Trustees vote to stop the project Wednesday was a loss for regional transit and for the jobs, economic development and affordable housing that light rail promised, many local leaders said. Orange County Commissioner Mark Marcoplos said he and other GoTriangle board members sought a solution until the last minute.

But in the end, there were too many challenges to overcome by the state’s Nov. 30 deadline to have the project funding in place. The future of regional transit is now back in the hands of the transit partners: the two counties’ boards of commissioners and the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro regional planning group (DCHCMPO).

Durham also is left to consider how to salvage years of planning for affordable housing, jobs and economic development, all tied to light rail.

Is the decision final?

The decision to end the light-rail project becomes official when Orange and Durham counties and the DCHCMPO board vote to end the project. The Orange County commissioners could vote Tuesday; the Durham County commissioners have not set a date yet.

How soon could we get something else?

The partners will draft changes to the counties’ transit plans, which also include new bus services, a Wake-Durham commuter rail line, and an Amtrak station in Hillsborough. It could take a year or more to draft new plans, submit them for public comment and get them approved.

“We’re not going to come up with a new plan overnight,” Orange County Commissioners Chair Penny Rich said Thursday. “That’s a pipe dream.”

It also could take years to put the new plans into action, even if it’s just more buses and routes for GoDurham, GoTriangle, Chapel Hill Transit and Orange Public Transportation.

Regional bus-rapid transit service is more complicated, especially if federal tax dollars help pay for it. A small project, like Chapel Hill’s planned bus-rapid transit route, can take two or three years to secure a Federal Transit Administration grant and at least two years to get state funding.

See the Orange County transit plan at bit.ly/2HJAZHF. See the Durham County transit plan at bit.ly/2HXz8OH.

How much money? How can we spend it?

GoTriangle amasses the money to pay for Orange and Durham transit plans through a half-cent sales tax, and car rental and registration fees.

Here’s how much each county collected through June 2018. (Much of this money has been spent.) This year’s financial report won’t be available until mid-summer:

Orange County

Total 2012-18: $43.6 million (includes sales tax, fees and grants)

2018 sales tax: $7.3 million

2018 car registration fees: $771,820

2018 car rental fees: $612,779

Durham County

Total 2012-18: $170.8 million (includes sales tax, fees and grants)

2018 sales tax:$29.9 million

2018 car registration fees: $2.3 million

2018 car rental fees: $1.2 million

State law requires the counties to spend money collected through the transit sales tax on building, operating and maintaining public transportation systems.

The money cannot be used for schools, law enforcement or any other county services.

Can light-rail money go to buses?

The money that would have gone to light rail could be a boon for GoDurham and Chapel Hill Transit, which face budget shortfalls and potential cuts. The problem has been growing for several years because of deep cuts to state funding and the federal grants that help buy new buses. The cost of providing transit services also has been growing, officials have said.

In December, transportation leaders told the Durham City Council that GoDurham may need to end some bus routes. The system’s five-year plan includes an $875,000 projected shortfall, Harmon Crutchfield, assistant director of the city’s transportation department, told the council. GoDurham also wants to purchase 40-foot electric buses, which cost around $700,000 per bus.

In Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill Transit is looking to fill a nearly $700,000 hole in next year’s budget. The town used one-time grant money to fill the gap this year. Another challenge for Chapel Hill and its partners UNC and Carrboro is how to make the fare-free system, which has had budget problems for several years, financially sustainable.

Bill Judge, Durham’s interim transportation director, said light rail funds, administered through the county’s transit plan, cannot be used for operating shortfalls but could help with other needs.

“The funding source — local sales tax — requires the funds to be spent on new or expanded services, so these funds cannot be used to cover the proposed GoDurham budget shortfall,” he said by email.

Orange County amended its plan in 2012 so that its transit agencies would have more flexibility in using the additional money to meet unexpected budget increases, such as if the price of fuel were to skyrocket.

A GoDurham bus at Durham Station downtown. Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan dvaughan@heraldsun.com

What about bus shelters?

Bus riders in Chapel Hill and Durham have been asking for more bus-stop shelters for years. Many of those stops now are little more than a sign on the side of the road.

The average cost for a bus shelter is about $35,000, with lighting, sidewalk improvements and a concrete pad, Judge said. The transit sales tax is funding some bus stop improvements.

Durham also is preparing a list of “Participatory Budgeting” projects that all city residents age 13 and older will vote on in May as part of a new $2.4 million program. More than 500 ideas were submitted, with “streets and sidewalks” receiving the most submissions, at 36 percent.

“It seems like basic decency to, at a minimum, provide a bench, trashcan, shelter and sidewalk for the community that rides the bus in Durham,” resident Bridgette Thurston wrote.

How does this affect affordable housing?

It’s not clear yet.

The Durham City Council plans to put a $95 million affordable housing bond referendum on the November ballot. Many of the projects it would support are near planned light rail stops.

One downtown project is already underway on Willard Street next to the Durham Station. The Durham Housing Authority’s renovation of J.J. Henderson public housing nearby is also underway.

Downtown light-rail stops would also have been built at Blackwell and Dillard street, near three sites — Oldham Towers, Liberty Street Apartments and Forest Hill Heights — the authority wants to turn into mixed-use projects with affordable and market-rate apartments.

Durham County, meanwhile, has already voted to redevelop two parking lots on East Main Street into parking garages with mixed-use, mixed-income apartments. Those two blocks are within walking distance of what would have been the Dillard Street light-rail stop.

Chapel Hill planned to seek affordable housing near its light-rail stations and also has a consultant’s plan for economic development of those stations in hand, but little work has been done to put those plans into action.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer