Light rail failure ‘eroded public confidence’ in transit planners GoTriangle, report says

This story was updated at 9:14 a.m. Nov. 11, 2019.

Public transit leaders in the Triangle are losing credibility after spending millions of dollars over the last two decades fighting for a light rail project that ended in failure earlier this year, a critical new report says.

“Interviews with staff, community leaders and key stakeholders reveal concerns with GoTriangle’s ability to deliver large scale rail projects,” the report said.

The report focused mostly on light rail — whose leaders spent $130 million before shutting it down earlier this year, CityLab has reported — but it also referenced another commuter rail program that ended in failure in 2007. Since that report, GoTriangle has estimated light rail spending at $158.5 million.

GoTriangle, which operates buses in Wake, Durham and Orange counties, was the leading force behind a light rail project that would have connected much of the region with trains in a push to help the environment as well as traffic problems. But after years of ups and downs, filled with obstacles from local, state and federal government leaders as well as private businesses, GoTriangle announced in March that it was pulling the plug on light rail.

“Difficulties and challenges with the projects have eroded public confidence in GoTriangle,” said the report, which was first reported by WRAL. “It is critical that confidence in the agency be rebuilt prior to or as part of the process to implement the next project.”

Saturday morning, GoTriangle announced that every day from Thursday Nov. 14 through Monday Nov. 19, it’s inviting people in Durham to come tell officials what they want from the agency in the future. The community workshops will be held at various times and locations, in the morning, afternoon and evening, all around the county. A full schedule can be found at engagedurham.com/youre-invited.

The agency will also hold a meeting with various local officials in Raleigh on Monday Nov. 19 called “State of the Commute 2019,” for which interested attendees can RSVP at gotriangle.org/StateoftheCommute2019.

According to WRAL, GoTriangle’s former CEO Jeff Mann commissioned the report between when the light rail project failed in March and when he resigned in June. The interim CEO, Shelley Blake Curran, told WRAL that, “I think that it’s a learning experience, and we just have to make sure that we’re looking at projects and critiquing them the way that we need to be.”

In a message to employees, shared with The News & Observer, Curran addressed numerous findings from the report. She said GoTriangle is getting back into talks with others in the community about strengthening their partnerships, and in the near future they plan to focus on buses, while also taking some small steps to branch out into longer-term projects.

“We are focusing on bus service and our core mission of good customer service while also working on mobile ticketing, our multimodal, mixed-used project connected to Raleigh Union Station and an expansive feasibility study with key stakeholders for a commuter rail project,” Curran wrote.

Doomed by Duke?

Light rail was perhaps too ambitious of a project for GoTriangle, the report said.

Skeptical of light rail’s price tag — which would have reached into the billions of dollars if it had ever been built — Wake County pulled out years ago, leaving just Durham and Chapel Hill. The report said that hurt the project’s general support in the area. And it ultimately failed after Durham’s biggest employer, Duke University, pulled its support.

Losing the tens of thousands of people who work at Duke University and Duke Health as possible riders made the project less feasible. Plus Duke was located in the middle of the planned route, so if the trains couldn’t go by its campus that would complicate plans for the line to reach into downtown Durham and NC Central University.

Duke claimed that it was concerned about vibrations from the trains harming delicate medical and scientific equipment. However, some outside observers said the specifics of those complaints didn’t make sense.

Some suspected a simpler explanation.

“Duke’s decision to kill the light rail project sadly reinforces the worst fears of many Durham residents — that Duke University is an arrogant and elitist enclave with little interest in being the kind of partner this city needs,” tweeted Durham City Council member Charlie Reece.

Regardless of why the university pulled out of the project and refused to set up a stop on campus, its decision meant light rail was doomed. The report said if GoTriangle wants to put together another ambitious regional transit plan in the future, it must make sure that it either avoids relying too heavily on companies like Duke, or at least makes sure they’re on board.

“Development of a highly detailed and choreographed strategy” is important, the report said, particularly when trying to get major community stakeholders on board. “This can be particularly challenging when dealing with private stakeholders, such as Duke University, which may lack governance structures and officials that can be held publicly accountable for past promises and commitments.”

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.