Chapel Hill News

GoTriangle, Orange County plan light-rail reports, vote for April

Updated bus and light-rail investment plans should be available for Durham and Orange counties to review and approve before the Federal Transit Administration’s April 30 deadline, GoTriangle officials said Tuesday.

The boards of commissioners in each county also will vote in late April on updated agreements for implementing their respective plans and for sharing the local costs of a $2.5 billion Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit system. The 17.7-mile light-rail line would run from UNC Hospitals to N.C. Central University.

GoTriangle officials and an independent consultant that Orange County hired to review the financial plan will make separate reports to the Orange County Board of Commissioners at an April 18 public hearing. The commissioners agreed Tuesday to compile a list of questions they want GoTriangle and staff to answer.

GoTriangle will discuss a revised schedule with the Durham County Board of Commissioners on Monday, March 13.

The FTA recently told GoTriangle that the counties must be committed to paying at least 30 percent of the project’s local cost, or $371.1 million, before the project can be approved for engineering work. GoTriangle’s Board of Trustees could approve a $70 million engineering contract once the FTA signs off.

The project will stall if the counties miss the April 30 deadline, and any money spent between that date and the project’s re-entry into the federal funding pipeline will not be reimbursed. There are no guarantees that the project, if resubmitted next year, would be considered for a federal grant.

Durham and Orange counties are counting on the federal grant to pay at least 50 percent of the light-rail project’s cost. The state has capped its share at 10 percent, leaving 40 percent, or roughly $990 million, for the counties to pay.

The current cost-sharing formula requires Durham County to pay 77 percent of the local light-rail cost – roughly $762 million – and Orange County to pick up the nearly $228 million.

GoTriangle General Manager Jeff Mann has said the current plans commit a combined $455.7 million from the half-cent transit sales tax, vehicle registration fees and a car rental tax.

The decision to consider the revised bus and rail investment plans in April comes about three weeks after the boards were asked to delay their vote until June. FTA officials rejected letters of support for the project that GoTriangle proposed submitting last week as an alternative to the approved financial and project plans.

Nearly 30 people addressed the commissioners Tuesday, most asking questions that they said should make the county reconsider moving ahead with light rail.

Commissioners Chairman Mark Dorosin, after hearing the concerns, noted GoTriangle’s updated financial plan and a separate report from Orange County’s independent consultant would be available by early April.

“Obviously, if we’ve got this April 30 deadline from FTA, all of these questions that the residents have raised, all of the questions that all of us have raised and continue to raise, they have to be answered,” he said.

Among the biggest concerns were if sales tax revenues would continue growing as planned, light rail’s limited corridor in Orange County, and whether it makes sense to mortgage the system’s construction through 2062.

Several citizens noted other technologies, such as bus rapid transit, ride-sharing and driverless vehicles, could make light rail obsolete by its launch in 2029. Others pointed out that the route wouldn’t serve future Chapel Hill growth areas.

While her northern Orange County neighbors support the goal of public transportation, Rachel Hawkins said, they cannot endorse spending billions for a single corridor that supports only a few citizens.

“We’re even more concerned about how the plan burdens our children and grandchildren with nearly a billion dollars in debt that they’ll be paying for decades. Because of the enormous pricetag, there’s little money left to provide transportation services to those who genuinely need it,” she said.

“We are most concerned about the way this is unfolding,” she added. “We have watched repeatedly as the commissioners are asked to hurry up and make decisions with partial information, only to have everything changed a short time later.”

Ramona McGee, a Chapel Hill attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, and others countered that light rail would be a key piece of the region’s future transit network.

“In an Orange County without light rail, car-oriented development would likely continue to creep across the county, meaning more roads, more pollution-emitting private cars and more sprawling land use, which requires the paving over of wetlands and cutting of forests,” McGee said.

“In contrast, with the light rail, Orange County can balance the demands of a growing population with dense compact development along the light rail line while protecting our natural areas from sprawling land use.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Learn more

More information about the Durham-Orange light-rail project can be found online at bit.ly/2jPKRRx.

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