Durham County commissioners are hopeful about a plan to connect Durham, Wake, and Orange via light rail, commuter train, and express bus service, even though the cost of building light rail may force commuter rail to be delayed.
Four residents who spoke during a public comment period at last night’s board of commissioners meeting were also optimistic.
One speaker argued that light rail can help low-income communities, saying “disproportionately white NIMBYs” are oblivious to the problems this type of transit plan can alleviate. Another, a transit planner and self-professed light rail “aficionado,” lamented that the Triangle is a little late to the light rail “game” and that Raleigh-Durham International Airport isn’t included in the light rail line, but said he supports the plan nonetheless. A third called light rail “a sane and sustainable way” to keep up with the Triangle’s projected growth.
The board on Tuesday night got an update from GoTriangle, which is heading up the regional transit proposal, focusing on the costs of light rail and what the $3.3 billion project would mean for future plans to build a thirty-seven-mile commuter rail line from Duke University to Garner.
GoTriangle representatives are making the rounds of local boards ahead of an April 30 deadline from the Federal Transit Authority. In order to move ahead with a federal grant application that would pay for half of the cost of light rail, the FTA is asking GoTriangle for updated cost estimates, a cost-sharing agreement between Durham and Orange counties, transit plans for each county, and proof of funding commitments for at least 30 percent of the approximately $1.9 billion in local funds needed to build light rail. (Counties will pay their share with revenues from a half-cent transit tax, car rental fees, and vehicle registration fees.)
Because of changes in federal and state funding, GoTriangle will have to borrow more money to get light rail done. That development caused some concerns about whether Durham could afford to contribute to commuter rail as planned.
Originally, construction on commuter rail was set to begin in 2018 and finish in 2026. But Mindy Taylor, GoTriangle’s senior financial analyst, explained Tuesday that the county wouldn’t have the funds to build commuter rail and light rail (which has a 2020 start date) at the same time. Overlapping construction would leave Durham’s transit fund with a more than $150 million shortfall some years and could limit what the state would be able to contribute.
Taylor said that the same state funding change affecting light rail affects commuter rail. Legislators last summer capped state contributions for all rail projects at ten percent of the total project cost, down from the twenty-five percent contribution GoTriangle had expected earlier in its planning.
“Constructing commuter rail in the same years as light rail exactly is not workable,” said Commissioner Ellen Reckhow. But, Reckhow says, both projects can get done with the right timing and revenue sourcing. She says the $5.3 billion in revenue that will come from the dedicated transit tax and fees by 2062 “shows we have the capacity to expand transit.”
GoTriangle has modeled a few different scenarios for completing light rail and commuter rail (they were not presented Tuesday). One, Reckhow says, delays commuter rail by ten years and seeks private contributions.
“It isn’t like we’re ready to do this now anyway,” said board chairwoman Wendy Jacobs, noting that a commuter rail planning study will begin next year.
Jacobs said it’s a big investment but worth it. The overall transit plan, she argued, will connect job centers, encourage investment around rail stations, alleviate traffic, and help lift people out of poverty by concentrating affordable housing near public transit.
“If we can do this, I truly believe we can become one of the most important regions not just in the country but in the world,” Jacobs said.
The board will hold another public hearing on the transit plan April 24. It is expected to vote on it then.