Durham News

Legislators add restrictions to planned Durham-Orange rail project

A rendering of what the planned Orange-Durham light rail line will look like.
A rendering of what the planned Orange-Durham light rail line will look like. Raleigh

Durham and Chapel Hill’s mayors and regional transit leaders expressed disappointment Tuesday after state legislators dealt another blow to the planned Durham-Orange light rail project.

The General Assembly threw a wrench in light-rail plans last year, when lawmakers capped state spending on light rail projects at $500,000 – even though the state Department of Transportation already had allocated $138 million for the estimated $1.5 billion Durham-Orange light rail project. The cap was called a “project killer” by then-Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt.

The proposed compromise budget Republican leaders released Monday night repeals that cap, but it includes new restrictions that current Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger said could again “kill” the project.

The Senate planned to hold its first vote on the compromise spending plan Tuesday, while House leaders hoped to send the final budget to Gov. Pat McCrory by the end of the week.

Under the plan, no commuter rail or light-rail project could receive more than 10 percent of its total funding from the state.

And the Durham-Orange Light Rail Project wouldn’t automatically get funding. It would have to wait two years and go through the Department of Transportation’s prioritization process again.

17-mile route

The plan to build the 17-mile light-rail line between UNC Hospitals and Alston Avenue, just east of downtown Durham, currently relies on 25 percent state funding and 25 percent in local funding, from a half-cent sales tax that Orange and Durham voters approved for transit, vehicle registration fees, fares and a rental car tax. The remaining 50 percent is expected from the federal government.

“We are disappointed by the new, restrictive light rail and commuter rail provisions inserted this legislative session,” said Jeff Mann, general manager of GoTriangle, Tuesday. He said GoTriangle, the regional transit agency overseeing the Durham-Orange Light Rail Project, is evaluating its options.

State Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, was blunt in his assessment.

“At this time, the provision that is in there could have a far-reaching adverse impact on the viability of the project,” he said.

McKissick said it is “extremely unlikely” that the provision will change this year, but he is “cautiously optimistic” that there could be a change in the future.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell, who is chairman of the GoTriangle board, said officials will start to explore their options as the budget process moves forward.

“We couldn’t do anything specifically until we knew exactly what the bill is going to be,” Bell said Tuesday. “We are still not going to give up hope that the bill will be rescinded in the long term.”

Hemminger said Chapel Hill leaders have put all of their transportation “eggs” in the light-rail basket. Like Bell, she said she hopes the project can win state support over the long haul.

“The hope then is that we get legislators in power that can help change this and make it a more viable option,” she said.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges