The bill for the $2.5 billion Durham-Orange light-rail transit project could be paid by 2062, a GoTriangle representative said Tuesday.
Project manager Danny Rogers updated the Orange County Board of Commissioners on the project’s latest financial plan, submitted Dec. 30 to the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts grant program. GoTriangle could learn in February whether to start the project’s engineering phase.
Construction of the 17.7-mile rail line – from UNC Hospitals to N.C. Central University in Durham – could start in 2020 if the project stays on track. The estimated cost includes the rail system, stations, interest on debt payments and potential development projects, such as affordable housing.
The commissioners will discuss the updated plan at a Feb. 16 work session. A final draft of the plan is expected by March, and the commissioners could consider approving the updated plan in April.
Rogers said the new plan better matches when money will be available to pay for the project and spreads out the debt financing to complete it. The FTA still could pay half of the project cost, and the state is expected to pay 10 percent.
Durham and Orange counties would be responsible for about $990 million, roughly $227 million of which could be paid with existing revenues from the half-cent transit sales tax, registration fees, car rental taxes and in-kind land donations.
Another $698.6 million – plus up to $236 million more to help manage cash flow – could be financed using short-term loans and longer-term, low-interest federal TIFIA loans.
The debt would be paid back as federal money comes in and with future sales tax revenues and fees, Rogers said. The counties could repay the debt more quickly, he said, but the extra income could be better spent on other light-rail costs.
That doesn’t mean GoTriangle has stopped working with its partners to find other resources, Rogers said, but they don’t expect to need more local money unless there’s a snag, such as lower than expected sales tax revenues or state funding.
Commissioner Earl McKee questioned how GoTriangle could ask for up to $175 million more from Durham and Orange counties in early December and return less than 30 days later with another option.
“I have a queasy feeling I’m living in Alice in Wonderland, that it’s all numbers, and that I can’t grasp these numbers,” McKee said.
GoTriangle officials have continued to work on the project financing, Rogers responded.
The financial advisers “had just been on briefly at that point. We said this is where we are at this point; this is what we need. We have to go to FTA, and we have to share with them information to go forward,” he said.
“We had to come through and talk to you at that point to make our schedule and keep this project moving forward. That means we’re not going to stop trying to make it better, which is what I think we’ve done, is make it better.”
McKee later asked the board to rescind its December agreement to help find more local money but didn’t get any support.
Orange County has since hired its own consultant to look at the numbers and plans to talk with Durham about changing the local funding formula. Orange County now pays 23 percent of the local cost, based on its share of the light-rail line.
Commissioner Mark Marcoplos said he wants to see more information at a future meeting about the environmental effects, costs and other details of light-rail transit vs. bus-rapid transit, or BRT.
Hillsborough resident Bonnie Hauser is among those advocating to use the light-rail money for a BRT system, which gives high-capacity buses priority at traffic signals or puts them in dedicated lanes to be more efficient.
BRT will serve thousands of riders and be completed in a few years, Hauser said. Contrary to concerns about higher BRT costs – the project’s cost has tripled since 2012 – it’s still a fraction of LRT costs, she said.
“Since this project began in 2012, trains are now slower, less frequent and a lot more expensive. Shouldn’t Orange County be considering bus-rapid transit as an alternative for the Durham-Orange corridor? We’d have service a lot faster, a lot sooner, and it would free up funds for transportation throughout county,” she said.
BRT reinforces highway use and “less livable” urban design, Chapel Hill resident Tom Farmer said. Light rail “doesn’t choke our roadways; it doesn’t pollute our air and doesn’t consume our open spaces,” he said.
“In December and again tonight, Commissioner McKee asked when this project was going to cost $3 billion. It will reach that number if we delay, only to realize later that our economic future and access to jobs require efficient, high-capacity transit,” Farmer said.
Commissioners Chairman Mark Dorosin said the board expects regular updates from GoTriangle this year.
“There’s a lot of strong feelings in the community about this, but I think ... everybody has some really important shared goals, which is getting all the information possible and having it conveyed – both to us on the board and in the community – in the most clear, the most accessible and the most understandable way possible,” he said, “so that the decisions that we all have to make around this are based on a shared and reasonable set of facts and assumptions.”