Chapel Hill News

Trump’s proposed budget could derail Durham-Orange light-rail plan

A concept illustration shows what a Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit station might look like in downtown Durham.
A concept illustration shows what a Durham-Orange Light-Rail Transit station might look like in downtown Durham. Courtesy of GoTriangle

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, if approved, could leave Durham, Orange and Wake counties holding the bag for their rail and bus projects.

The president’s fiscal 2018 budget plan would only fund New Starts projects with existing grant agreements from the Federal Transit Administration.

GoTriangle plans to seek funding from the New Starts program to pay for half of the $2.5 billion Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project. The current schedule anticipates a funding agreement for the project in 2020, GoTriangle spokesman Mike Charbonneau said in an email.

GoTriangle also plans to seek roughly $443 million from the New Starts program for Wake County’s commuter rail line to Durham and $173.5 million for the planned Wake bus-rapid transit system. Those projects, part of a $2.3 billion transit plan, are just starting the federal process.

The General Assembly has capped state funding for new light-rail projects at up to 10 percent of total project costs.

The local light-rail cost for Durham and Orange counties is estimated at $990 million. Durham County would pay 77 percent and Orange County, 23 percent, but they are discussing whether Durham, where most of the light-rail line would lie, could pay more.

Without federal money, the light-rail project would stall, Charbonneau said.

“GoTriangle is confident that federal budget negotiations will recognize the many values of transit investment, including access to jobs and education, and that essential funding for transit projects will continue,” he said.

The increasing local share of light rail’s cost has prompted its critics to push Orange County toward other options.

Orange County’s overall transit plan also calls for bus rapid transit in Chapel Hill. How Trump’s budget would affect that project, which has a different federal funding source, is unclear.

There is no back-up plan for light rail at this point, said Orange County Commissioner Barry Jacobs.

Jacobs, also a member of GoTriangle’s Board of Trustees, said he still supportive but skeptical of the light-rail project.

“I understand that it’s the job of the GoTriangle staff is to be optimistic, and if we’re going to do it, we need to be optimistic, too, but with this much at stake, we better know what we’re getting into,” Jacobs said.

What’s next

GoTriangle officials plan to meet with the Durham and Orange boards of commissioners in April to get their approval for revised plan agreements and financial plans. The regional transit agency must submit those documents by April 30 to enter the New Starts engineering phase.

The engineering work, which will cost $70 million, must be completed before the FTA will approve the project for full funding. The federal government will not reimburse the counties unless the project is approved.

North Carolina is among more than a dozen states with projects that could be affected by the budget cuts. Durham County Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs noted the potentially national impact of Trump’s proposal and pointed out it still must pass muster in Congress.

She spoke recently with Sen. Thom Tillis and Sen. Richard Burr’s transportation aide during a visit to Washington, D.C. Both recognized how important transit projects are to the region’s future and economic development, Wendy Jacobs said.

“I’m hopeful that at the end of the day these programs will remain intact,” she said.

‘Outraged’

Barry Jacobs was unsure how much influence the counties’ Democratic representatives – U.S. Rep. David Price, from Orange and Wake County’s 4th District, and U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, from Durham’s 1st District – could have in a Republican-controlled House.

Butterfield was “shocked and outraged” by the proposed budget, which he said cuts half a trillion dollars from non-defense discretionary spending and eliminates 19 federal agencies.

The president cuts 13 percent from the Transportation Department’s current budget with the goal of emphasizing significant national and regional infrastructure projects, and reducing or eliminating projects “that are better delivered by states, localities, or the private sector,” his budget states.

Butterfield noted Trump’s repeated vows during the 2016 campaign to invest in infrastructure.

“By threatening to cut this funding, President Trump is showing that he has little interest in creating jobs and building infrastructure,” Butterfield said. “Though President Trump is calling his plan the ‘America First’ budget, his proposal is a deeply flawed plan that falls short on providing municipalities and counties with the critical funding for important community development projects that improve the lives of Americans.”

Burr’s office said the senator is reviewing the president’s proposals.

“He looks forward to working in Congress to put together a responsible budget plan that reflects the priorities of the American people while reducing wasteful spending,” Burr spokeswoman Taylor Holgate said.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

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