Durham County Commissioners voted unanimously Monday night to discontinue work on the Durham-Orange Light Rail line, following a recommendation from the transit agency spearheading the $2.47 billion project.
The county will now get to work trying to retool its transit plan and figuring out how to re-allocate funding that had been earmarked for light rail.
Commissioner James Hill compared the occasion to “a death in the family.” He noted that Durham was founded as a railroad stop, and that rail was a source of opportunity for residents and businesses.
The project had been in the works for about two decades and underpinned much of Durham’s plans to accommodate future growth, ensure housing affordability, and alleviate poverty.
Commissioner Wendy Jacobs, who chairs the board, said voting to kill the project was the hardest vote she’s made, but she knew Durham County “did everything we could” to make the project happen, including contributing an additional $57 million to cover a gap created by cuts to state funding.
“One of the silver linings is that now people are more educated than ever about transit. They want to be involved and engaged and we need to hear from the community,” she said.
Commissioners made clear Monday night that they believed things would have gone differently had the state been more supportive. Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who chairs the GoTriangle board, said Durham-Orange Light Rail was the only project in the pipeline for federal New Starts funding that had deadlines attached to it.
“What that did to our project was make it less resilient,” she said. “We had no extra funds. We were down to the bones in terms of the amount of money we have.”
GoTriangle CEO Jeff Mann recommended pulling the plug on the project late last month, citing snowballing challenges to the timeline and budget. At the same meeting, the GoTriangle Board of Trustees voted unanimously to recommend that Durham and Orange Counties—the local cost-sharing partners—pull back as well. Orange County commissioners voted last week to do so.
Now, with Durham out, it’s over.
While a lack of cooperation from Duke University was the most public hurdle, there were other factors that contributed to light rail’s demise. The project was hindered by a tight timeline imposed by state legislators, and as the obstacles piled up, it became increasingly unlikely the project would stay on track to hit those deadlines.
Originally, the state was expected to kick in 25 percent of the overall cost, but over time, that was whittled down to 10 percent and finally capped at $190 million, about 7 percent. Even that money was contingent on the project securing commitments for all local dollars by April 30 and a commitment for federal funding by November 30.
Jacobs said the state process for allocating transit money was intended to be data-driven and objective, but that when it came to Durham-Orange Light Rail, politics interfered.
“We need funding for transportation and we need a fair process moving forward for all people in the state of North Carolina,” she said.
As part of the process of applying for $1.2 billion in federal funding, GoTriangle needed cooperative agreements with about a dozen key partners, including Duke. In order to meet the state’s November 30 deadline to have federal funding secured, GoTriangle needed to complete its federal funding application this month.
In February, Duke announced that it would not be signing an agreement, citing concerns over vibration and electromagnetic interference that officials close to the project say could have been solved had Duke acted in good faith. GoTriangle also needed a land donation from Duke to make the project happen.
In addition, the project had yet to secure agreements from the North Carolina Railroad Company, which owns the existing tracks the light rail would have traveled alongside through downtown Durham, and Norfolk Southern, which operates the track.
GoTriangle had tried to assuage the railroads’ concerns about having to share crossing protection systems—and from downtown stakeholders who worried the line would cut off the American Tobacco section of downtown from the rest—by proposing a plan to tunnel and elevate the line through downtown. That proposal added about $80 million to the project budget.
The uncertain terms with Duke and the railroads affected how the project scored on a risk assessment by the Federal Transit Administration, from which GoTriangle was seeking federal funding.
The FTA assessment identified an additional $237 million in project costs, including money needed for changes proposed to the alignment downtown, as well as additional contingency costs and inflation adjustments. In addition, the FTA said GoTriangle needed to identify another 10 percent of the project budget for potential cost overruns. A nonprofit fundraising effort was also $87 million short of its $102 million goal. That money was needed by April 30 as part of the state deadline to have all local funding committed.
GoTriangle also found out it would have to conduct an environmental assessment of the proposed new alignment downtown that would not be complete until August, giving the FTA just three months to review the project’s application before the state’s November 30 deadline.
The release of both the risk assessment and the determination that an environmental review of the downtown changes would be required were both delayed by the federal government shutdown that ended in late January.
Reckhow said county staffers and officials will be working over the next twelve to fifteen months to revise the county transit plan and see what work from the light rail can be repurposed toward another project.
“Let’s pick ourselves back up, brush ourselves off, figure out what’s next and get back in line for funding,” Jacobs said.