Chapel Hill News

Vote on Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit gives Orange County pause

GoTriangle presented the latest budget for the $2.5 billion Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit project to the Chapel Hill Town Council on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017. The acronym “FFGA” in the second to last line refers to the Full Funding Grant Agreement that GoTriangle expects to sign with the Federal Transit Administration.
GoTriangle presented the latest budget for the $2.5 billion Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit project to the Chapel Hill Town Council on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017. The acronym “FFGA” in the second to last line refers to the Full Funding Grant Agreement that GoTriangle expects to sign with the Federal Transit Administration. Contributed

Orange County’s commissioners want more information before voting on the updated $2.5 billion Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit project and its financial plan.

GoTriangle officials said last week they won’t have all the information the commissioners need to make a decision by April, as originally planned. The agency has now asked the county to vote in June.

Meanwhile, the GoTriangle Board of Trustees is expected to vote on a $70 million light-rail engineering contract April 26 to meet a federal grant deadline.

The Federal Transit Administration could OK moving the light-rail project to the engineering phase in the next few weeks. The project could be delayed for a year if GoTriangle waits until after the commissioners’ June vote to start engineering, project manager Danny Rogers said.

The decision to delay the county’s vote is troubling for everyone, Commissioners Chairman Mark Dorosin said.

GoTriangle knew about the April deadline for a while, Commissioner Earl McKee, a light-rail critic, pointed out.

General manager Jeff Mann told the board in December that the revised plan would be ready for an April vote. Why didn’t GoTriangle make plans to get the information to the board in time, McKee asked.

Rogers said GoTriangle decided to wait until all the information was available so that the commissioners would be comfortable with their decision.

The agency realized in early February that the information would not be ready, said John Tallmadge, GoTriangle’s director of regional services development.

“In April, if you’re not comfortable (with the preliminary information), then you can direct your vote on the GoTriangle board not to approve those contracts,” Rogers said.

Commissioner Barry Jacobs is Orange County’s representative on the 13-member board; Town Council member Ed Harrison represents Chapel Hill.

If GoTriangle approves the contract in April and the commissioners vote against the updated light-rail project in June, the contract could be terminated, Rogers said.

What about waiting?

Jacobs and Commissioner Mia Burroughs said they want to hear more about the consequences of GoTriangle waiting until June to approve the contract vs. moving ahead in April and the commissioners stopping the process in June.

“I need to let you know, as well as the public know, I will have a very hard time signaling positively about going forward with the engineering having only seen the draft plan for such a very short period of time,” Burroughs said.

In an interview, Jacobs said delaying the county’s vote until June allows more time to investigate the changes to the plan and address the “good questions” the public has raised.

Orange County is working with its own consultant to analyze the plan. Deputy County Manager Travis Myren said the review should be finished in April, depending on information from GoTriangle.

Cost sharing

The proposed 17.7-mile light-rail system would run from UNC Hospitals to N.C. Central University. Eighteen stops would connect riders with education, jobs, health care, shopping and housing.

Orange and Durham county officials planned to meet this week to talk about local cost-sharing and other collaborative efforts. Durham County has a separate agreement with GoTriangle and the regional planning partners that it must vote on.

Local officials and citizens have expressed concern and skepticism since GoTriangle asked Orange and Durham counties this fall to help find $175 million more in local dollars over 10 years. The transit agency also is working with public and private partners to seek donations of money and land for the project.

GoTriangle officials said the state’s decision to cap transit contributions at 10 percent, instead of the 25 percent share that was expected, prompted their search for other options. The federal government still could pick up 50 percent of the cost, leaving Durham and Orange counties responsible for about $990 million.

In January, GoTriangle officials said they had worked with a consultant to revise the plan. The new plan finances $698.6 million to cover the local costs – plus up to $236 million more to help manage cash flow. The debt could be repaid through 2062 using federal reimbursements and future sales tax revenues and fees.

The counties were asked to continue looking for other money in case of future cost overruns or an economic downturn.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Public forums

▪ Wednesday, Feb. 22: Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce will hold “Conversations on Transit for a Sustainable Future,” 8 to 9:30 a.m. at Silverspot Cinema in University Place.

▪ March 14: Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town and Orange County Voice will hold a forum on the county’s transit plan and future choices, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Chapel Hill Public Library.

More information about the plans is available at ourtransitfuture.com/transit-plan. Send comments by mail to C/O BRIP Updates, P.O. Box 13787, Research Triangle Park, NC 27709; email to info@ourtransitfuture.com; or submit at a future meeting or at ourtransitfuture.com/transit-plan.

On Cooper’s list

Gov. Roy Cooper included the $2.5 billion Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project last week in a list of eight major transportation projects he’d like considered for federal funding.

The National Governors Association is creating a list of “shovel-ready” projects for President Trump to consider as he develops his infrastructure plan. The other North Carolina projects on Cooper’s list are interstate highway upgrades.

“Moving ahead with shovel-ready projects like these will create good paying jobs and provide a shot in the arm to our state’s economy,” Cooper said Wednesday. “Improving highways and mass transit will make North Carolina an even better place to live and do business.”

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