Durham County

Where's the Durham-Orange light rail? Local officials buying land, hopeful for future

The Durham-Orange light rail system, shown here in a rendering of a proposed downtown Durham station, would run 17.7 miles from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham.
The Durham-Orange light rail system, shown here in a rendering of a proposed downtown Durham station, would run 17.7 miles from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham. Submitted

As Congress debates next year's federal budget, local officials learned Wednesday that GoTriangle now owns all the land needed for a light-rail operations and maintenance center in southeastern Durham.

The center will house a couple dozen trains, plus operators, mechanics and other staff, serving the 17.7-mile Durham-Orange light-rail system between UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill and Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham.

A dozen parcels make up the 25-acre Farrington Road site, whose neighbors have expressed concerns about noise and light pollution, potentially toxic chemicals that might be used to clean or service the trains, and about having an industrial operation in their residential neighborhood.

Transit officials counter that light-rail maintenance centers do not use hazardous materials or generate much noise and traffic.

Residents don't have to leave the site until 2019, said Matthew Clark, GoTriangle's government affairs manager. However, the city of Durham needs to annex and rezone the site this year so GoTriangle can meet Federal Transit Administration requirements, he said.

The regional transit agency bought some lots outright, transit planner Geoff Greene said, but six are being taken by eminent domain, which is allowed for public projects but requires settling on a fair price. Other landowners are willing to sell, Clark said, but GoTriangle's had to condemn those lots now while negotiating the price to meet the deadline for a federal grant agreement.

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"The FTA has bumped us up to September 2019, and that is great news, because it provides us some flexibility in terms of both finance and construction scheduling," Clark said. "But it's an aggressive schedule."

The light rail project will need both $247 million in state and $1.23 billion in federal funding to move forward. Durham and Orange counties will split the remaining $988 million, plus roughly $890 million in interest on short- and long-term debt.

Renee Price
Renee Price Contributed

Although federal funding has been in doubt since President Donald Trump took office, GoTriangle and local officials remain optimistic that there's enough support in Congress to protect current transit funding.

Trump's $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan, released last month, limits the funding available for new projects, including transit, and caps each project’s “incentive” at 20 percent of construction costs. That mean projects would need more local, state and private money.

Orange County Commissioner Renee Price said Trump's infrastructure plan was discussed at a conference in Washington, D.C., last week, which included DJ Gribbin, special assistant to the president for infrastructure policy. Gribbin said the administration expects public-private partnerships to lead the way on big projects, like the light rail, Price said.

"He was addressing the board of directors [for] the National Association of Counties (NACo), saying expect about 14 percent and come to us and let us know how you are going to raise the rest of the money," she said.

Ellen Reckhow Contributed

Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow interjected to say she also attended the conference but heard different information at a Transportation Steering Committee presentation.

Kevin Stone, NACo's associate legislative director for transportation and infrastructure, "said in no uncertain terms what they're hearing is that there's no appetite for changing the base (transit) programs right now," Reckhow said.

The Triangle's congressional delegation confirmed that support, Durham County Commissioners Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs said.

Transit funding is "at $2.3 billion in the Senate budget and $1.7 (billion) in the House, but people are thinking that it's going to be the Senate number, so the president may have put out a plan, but the key thing is it's Congress that approves what the funding is," Jacobs said. "And right now, there's very strong support for keeping these programs going, and that's the most important thing."

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926; @TammyGrubb
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