Durham County

With federal OK, Triangle Transit starts planning Durham-Orange light rail

A first-step approval issued Tuesday by the Federal Transit Administration means that Triangle Transit can get rolling on plans for a 17-mile light-rail line to connect UNC-Chapel Hill and East Durham.

The letter formally authorizes Triangle Transit to begin developing the region’s first new rail transit project since 2006, when the FTA killed a long-planned 28-mile train line between Durham and Raleigh.

“We can now proceed to complete the environmental process, advance our engineering and make final alignment decisions,” David King, Triangle Transit’s general manager, said Tuesday in a news release. “We will also use this time to strengthen our financial plan and work with our municipal and university partners on land use and housing issues around stations. We appreciate FTA’s vote of confidence in our work on this project.”

The trains would run from UNC Hospitals east along N.C. 54, turning north from Meadowmont toward Patterson Place on U.S. 15-501, then past South Square, Duke University Medical Center, Duke University and downtown Durham to Alston Avenue near N.C. Central University. Planners are considering alternate paths to take the trains through or around the Meadowmont neighborhood.

An environmental impact statement is to be completed by February 2016, followed by three years of engineering work. If state and federal funding were approved, construction would take four or five years, Triangle Transit said.

Residents, planners and elected officials in Wake, Durham and Orange counties have spent the past eight years collaborating and arguing over plans for new trains and beefed-up bus service to serve the fast-growing region.

Durham and Orange counties began collecting a half-cent sales tax last April, after receiving voter approval, to help pay for the light rail line and for enhanced bus service. State and federal funding would be needed to cover most of the cost of the light-rail line, estimated at $1.34 billion in 2012 dollars.

The Durham transit plan also includes a rush-hour commuter train line from Durham through Research Triangle Park and Raleigh to Garner. That part of the plan is on hold because no action has been taken on a corresponding transit plan for Wake County.

The Wake commissioners have refused to take up the Wake transit plan developed in 2011 by Triangle Transit and county officials. They are expected to take the first step toward ending their inaction Friday at the commissioners’ daylong retreat in Holly Springs.

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