In March, GoTriangle abandoned its long-in-the-works light-rail plans after Duke University effectively vetoed the proposed route along Erwin Road in Durham. This followed a decision twelve years earlier by the then-Triangle Transit Authority to cancel a regional rail system connecting Raleigh and Durham. 

To figure out why we can’t have nice things, former GoTriangle CEO Jeff Mann asked the American Public Transportation Association to conduct a postmortem on the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit dumpster fire. Over two days in September, APTA’s peer review team interviewed twenty local government and GoTriangle officials and stakeholders such as Duke University vice president Tallman Trask. 

Last week, as WRAL first reported, APTA sent its findings to the local transit agency. The sixteen-page report, which cost GoTriangle $20,000, portrays the agency as completely ill-equipped to take on a task as complex as light rail.

Interim CEO Shelley Blake Curran told WRAL that GoTriangle doesn’t take responsibility for the failure of the project, which will cost taxpayers $158 million. Instead, she said, it shared the blame with the legislature, which put restrictions on the project’s timeline and funding, as well as Duke and the railroad companies, with whom GoTriangle couldn’t hammer out final agreements as a key deadline neared. 

Here are our five takeaways from the report, which will be key as GoTriangle regroups, hires its next CEO, and starts trying to sort out what the future of regional transit looks like. 

1. No one trusts GoTriangle to handle large-scale projects. 

Twice now, GoTriangle has swung at big, ambitious regional transit projects, and twice now, it’s missed. 

“Difficulties and challenges with the projects have eroded public confidence in GoTriangle,” the report says. “It is critical that confidence in the agency be rebuilt prior to or as part of the process to implement the next project.”

The problem, according to the people APTA’s team interviewed, is that GoTriangle isn’t equipped to handle a project of this magnitude: “The termination by GoTriangle of two rail projects has resulted in concerns from both staff and community leaders about the agency’s ability to advance multi-billion-dollar projects. Many felt that the agency was not adequately organized or staffed to undertake a $2.4 billion project.”

In the future, the report cautions, GoTriangle needs to keep its ambitions in line with its capacity. Otherwise, local governments and stakeholders will be reticent to partner with the agency. 

“Credibility in the agency’s ability to implement the project is essential,” the report says. “GoTriangle should engage the board, staff, experts, and the community to define what is needed to enhance credibility. Most often the foundation from which to enhance an agency’s reputation lies first in successfully delivering on the core mission, and GoTriangle should determine if the community believes that this is the case. Major project implementation is more than the simple sum of the parts; it requires a belief in the institutions undertaking the work, trust that leadership is fully engaged and fighting the necessary battles, and an intrinsic commitment to success by the entire community.”

2. No one thought GoTriangle was going to pull it off. 

There was always a lot of hushed skepticism about light rail, even among its advocates, as probably every reporter who covered it picked up on. There was also a lot of wishful thinking—local officials who thought they could almost will the project into existence despite the obstacles that kept emerging. 

Per the report: “Discussion with several stakeholders, particularly business stakeholders, revealed skepticism that the DOLRT project could ever be successfully implemented. This skepticism enabled stakeholders on whom project success depended to defer, delay, and disengage from efforts to resolve key issues. [Cough Duke cough.] For others, hope and optimism tended to trump frustration and concern. Many were willing to move forward on the assumption that the organization could successfully deliver the project, even as they questioned whether it really would.” 

GoTriangle’s Board of Trustees also acted too much like a cheerleader, the report suggests: “Most importantly, a board should bring a healthy skepticism and dispassion that enables it to ask the hard questions and, where warranted, to hit the stop button.”

3. Never trust Duke. 

If nothing else, the report says, the light-rail project demonstrated the power that large stakeholders—the General Assembly, railroads, Duke University—have to kill these things, for reasons legitimate or petty. As such, “a highly detailed and choreographed strategy for building and maintaining support and consensus from key stakeholders and the public is fundamental and paramount.”

This is especially the case, the report continues, for private organizations such as Duke, the region’s largest employer, “which may lack governance structures and officials that can be held publicly accountable for past promises and commitments.”

“Agencies should be very cautious before undertaking costly work in advance of specific and enforceable commitments from key stakeholders, or at a minimum, without conscious and defined assessments regarding the state of stakeholder consensus,” the report continues. “Here, GoTriangle believed that the Railroads and Duke University were in fact fully committed to advancing the DOLRT and resolving key engineering issues, based on the signed documents and continued negotiations. In the peer review team’s experience, however, and as demonstrated here, advancing work on the basis of broad promises and commitments in the hope of future specificity and enforceable agreements is risky and substantially enhances the negotiating position of the stakeholder.”

To head this off in the future, the APTA team recommends tasking a single senior manager with overseeing relationships with major stakeholders and governments: “There should be specific owners for each key stakeholder relationship, coordinated and frequently assessed by this senior manager, and include detailed requirements and timelines for stakeholder agreements. … The responsibility for coordinating and assessing the relationships should reside in a single person. Formalized engagement of key stakeholders—e.g., through participation on advisory boards or review panels—can generate (and at times force) important benefits.”

4. Light rail’s failure crushed morale inside GoTriangle.

According to the report, “Termination of the project, and the departure of some key staff including the CEO, has led other staff to question moving forward on the commuter rail between Raleigh and Durham. While staff continue to believe in the mission of the organization and the value of commuter rail, morale clearly has been undermined, particularly with recent staff turnover.”

The selection of the next CEO will be vital: “Staff indicated that the selection process for the next CEO will say a lot about the agency’s near-term future and its ability to overcome the challenges of the past year.”

The report suggested the agency use the CEO search to reaffirm or redefine GoTriangle’s mission while trying to rebuild the community’s confidence in the agency. 

5. Next time, start smaller.

If you could distill the entire report into one sentence, it’s this: GoTriangle bit off more than it could chew with light rail.

The APTA report says this a bit more delicately, but it says it all the same: “The interviews underscored an underlying concern that, despite passage of tax referenda in Durham and Orange counties, the LRT project may not have been the best first project for the region. Many transit agencies start smaller—Charlotte’s initial Blue Line LRT cost less than $450 million—and the DOLRT project required resolving thorny issues with both the Railroads and Duke University.”

So the next time the agency wants to approach a big transit project, it should explore newer, more manageable options—e.g., bus rapid transit, which is a big part of Wake County’s transit plans. 

“Transportation is experiencing rapid change, with new technologies, new services, and changing travel preferences and demographics,” the report says. “New options exist today that might change the approach for connecting the region. For example, Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is experiencing rapid growth and success across the country as a cheaper and more quickly implemented option than LRT …. These changes should be taken into consideration when assessing future alternatives to meet the region’s travel needs.”

In addition, future projects should be prepared for ratfucking, whether from a vindictive legislature or a greedy university, and the public must be fully aware of and sold on the costs and benefits. 

“For every project, but particularly a multibillion-dollar megaproject, there must be a rigorous, quantitative, thorough and transparent analysis of costs, risks, benefits, and challenges to implementation of the project,” the report says. “This goes well beyond maintenance of a risk register and regular updates to the board. It requires staff and the board to fully comprehend what it will take to implement the project, the risks to doing so, and the implications of both success and failure on the mission of the agency. Moreover, project risks must constantly be updated in light of changing circumstances. Realism regarding challenges is a critical prerequisite to success.

“In addition, there must be transparency regarding risks, challenges, and implications to the general public. In this case, did the board, key stakeholders and the public fully understand the level of commitment from and the implications of the failure to secure the support of key stakeholders such as Duke and the Railroads? Did Durham and Orange counties fully understand the financial implications of agreeing to commit their sales tax revenues for decades to come?”

6. There will be a next time.

While the report suggests that GoTriangle needs to get its house in order before taking on a new project, it’s sanguine on the opportunities for GoTriangle’s future success. 

“Despite disappointment in the termination of the project, interviewees emphasized many important positives that will position GoTriangle for future success. These include: successful core bus operations on which the region is dependent; substantial sales tax revenue for future projects; GoTriangle’s de facto role as the governance structure undergirding regionalism in the Triangle.”

The key to making the next project work will be getting—and maintaining—buy-in from stakeholders, the report says: “Given the importance of key stakeholders to the success of regionalism and specific projects, the team recommends that the board consider ways to institutionally engage major stakeholders within GoTriangle’s governance. This could include nonvoting membership on the board for a business and/or academic stakeholder, or creation of advisory committees or boards on which stakeholders can participate in decisions that impact them.”

Read the report here. 

Final_Report_DOLRT_GoTriangle_11.5.19__1_-DMID1-5krgva1ju by Jeffrey Billman on Scribd

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at 

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2 replies on “6 Takeaways from GoTriangle’s Light Rail Postmortem”

  1. DOLRT was a meandering bad idea.

    Connecting two hospitals with an undevelopable swamp, while the Green buses remain packed, is and was a terrible idea.

  2. Ms. Curran’s response that GoTriangle doesn’t take responsibility for the project explains all that went wrong with the project and what is wrong with GoTriangle. While it is easy to lay the blame with Duke University, there were many self-inflicted wounds by GoTriangle. GoTriangle did not have continuous public outreach in the communities for which the light rail would impact. You cannot put on a project this big and not educate the public. Furthermore, you should also have written agreements in place with key stakeholders if their participation is vital for a successful project. There were project staff members who were genuinely passionate about the project and worked tirelessly to make it successful. Unfortunately, leadership at the Agency, Ms. Curran included, did not appear engaged with the project or the team. There were individuals in management roles who did not have experience in the areas for which they were hired and should not have been a part of the project, much less employed by the Agency. Mr. Mann was practically absent from the office and was not engaged with the project team. If GoTriangle is truly committed to reestablishing credibility with governmental partners and the public, it truly needs to clean house and rebuild from scratch. There are still staff members at the Agency in roles for which they are not suited and will continue to hinder any and all efforts to rebuilding its reputation due to inexperience. If the Agency is not committed to truly doing the right thing, tax payers will be less likely to be supportive of any future endeavors sponsored by the Agency.

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