The Federal Transit Administration could decide within a few weeks whether the proposed Durham-Orange light rail can move onto the next phase of an application to win a grant that would cover half the cost of the $3.3 billion project.

Mike Charbonneau, communications director for GoTriangle, which is working with Durham and Orange counties to head the project, said the transit authority expects to hear from the FTA by the end of July.

If the FTA gives its approval, Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit can move from the project development phase of a federal grant application process to the engineering and design phase. Charbonneau said some design work has already been done in terms of environmental assessment, mapping the 17.7-mile route, and doing initial engineering work.

“If the project is approved in the final federal budget and moved into construction in 2020, the project in its entirety is eligible for a fifty percent match,” Charbonneau said. “The federal match is critical to get the project done. As important as light rail is to Durham and Orange counties, clearly it couldn’t be built without this funding.”

If all goes as planned, construction is expected to be complete in 2028, with the system operational in 2029. Although GoTriangle remains optimistic about the project’s viability, there is a chance the funding could fall through. A budget proposal put forth by President Trump for fiscal year 2018 would only award grants to projects with existing FTA agreements.

“Nationally and locally, everyone is watching but also feeling confident that the federal discussion and budget processes will recognize the value of transit,” Charbonneau said.

According to the FTA, moving into the project development phase is not a guarantee that the project will ultimately be funded.

“The president’s budget proposal includes no funding for new [Capital Investment Grant] projects, and thus project sponsors that do not yet have construction grant agreements acknowledge they are undertaking additional work at their own risk which may not receive CIG funding,” an FTA spokesperson said in an email to the INDY.

Charbonneau says the project’s progress will not be impacted by the continuation of a state funding cap on light rail projects. Currently, the state can contribute no more than 10 percent of the total cost to a light rail project, and financing for DOLRT was built around that limitation. There were three attempts to change that cap this session. A House budget proposal would have eliminated the cap, but the edit didn’t make into the legislature’s final budget compromise.

In a letter released Monday, state transportation secretary James Trogdon highlighted the lack of movement on the funding cap as “an area of concern” in the state budget.

“Current law has capped state funding for light rail, which was inconsistent with the Strategic Transportation Investments Law and in effect, cancelled a planned commitment of $138 million for the
Durham-Orange light rail line,” Trogdon wrote. “A light rail system for this region would boost business development and recruitment, and also assist commuters along this growing corridor. A provision to remove the cap was present in the House version, but removed in conference—a missed opportunity for the entire state to increase our competitiveness with peer southeastern and growing states nationally.”