Tallman Trask III made for a convenient villain. 

His name smacks of the sort of wealth and privilege you can’t help but imagine inhabiting Duke University’s C-suite. Then there’s the scandal that made that name infamous—the time, in 2014, that Trask allegedly struck a parking attendant with his Porsche (of course) and then called her a “dumb, dumb, stupid [n-word].”

So when negotiations between Duke and GoTriangle collapsed over light rail’s route and Duke bailed on the project at the end of February—dooming a plan two decades and $158 million in the making—Trask and other top Duke officials bore the brunt of Durham’s ire. 

Trask, Duke’s point-person on the negotiations, had been the guy—according to a timeline that GoTriangle supplied to the media—who suggested moving the line away from Duke’s medical facilities on Erwin Road and closer to a black neighborhood. When that didn’t happen, Duke refused to sign the cooperative agreement that GoTriangle needed to move ahead. 

As one local official bitterly told the INDY, “they didn’t want the inconvenience.”

But the story isn’t quite that simple. 

No doubt, Duke played dirty pool. It was hardly a secret that light rail was coming down Erwin Road. In fact, according to GoTriangle, Trask asked GoTriangle to put a station on Erwin in 2015 to “reinforce the Campus gateway,” and the route was set by 2016. 

And while Duke had legitimate concerns—mainly about light rail interfering with medical equipment—the university didn’t raise them until 2017. The increasingly desperate GoTriangle would have done anything to accommodate those concerns—there were plausible-if-difficult workarounds—but Duke was content to string things along. 

Put simply: Duke didn’t want to be bothered by light rail. But it also wanted to avoid sticking in the knife, hoping instead that the problem would resolve itself. Eventually, though, it saw no other choice. 

There were lots of fingerprints on the murder weapon, however. Begin with the General Assembly, never a fan of mass transit. It drew first blood in 2018 when it imposed an arbitrary deadline on the project that forced GoTriangle to press the pedal to the metal or forgo state funding. 

The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project also had self-inflicted wounds: GoTriangle hadn’t raised the money it needed or reached agreements with the railroad companies that controlled the tracks it planned to use. Both of those could have been deal-killers by themselves. 

By early 2019, you could’ve made the argument that light rail was asking to be put out of its misery. After all, it was forging ahead, knowing that Duke University or the railroads could kill the project on a whim. 

Who thought that was a good idea?  

After light rail’s demise, GoTriangle commissioned a postmortem from the American Public Transportation Association. Its report drove home that point: “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 says. “Here, GoTriangle believed that the Railroads and Duke University were in fact fully committed to advancing the DOLRT and resolving key engineering issues. … [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.”

Another takeaway from the APTA report was that no one really thought GoTriangle was capable of pulling off a project as big and complex as light rail. That allowed Duke, the railroads, and other business interests to “defer, delay, and disengage”—they figured the whole enterprise was destined to fail anyway—while GoTriangle officials engaged in wishful thinking: “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.” 

With light rail’s failure in the rearview, a few reality checks: 

One, as the APTA report highlights, a $3.3 billion, 17.7-mile light-rail line from Durham to Chapel Hill was probably beyond GoTriangle’s capacity—and might not have been the most efficient use of transit funds in the first place. 

Two, the DOLRT was likely dead the second the legislature imposed what was, in retrospect, an impossible deadline.  

And three, yes, Duke screwed us. But in a perverse way, maybe it saved us from ourselves, albeit in the most elitist way possible. 

Of course, try telling that to the folks who worked for nearly twenty years to make light rail a reality, only to see it all vanish because, well, Duke had a veto and felt like using it.   

In October, Duke announced that Trask will retire next year, following a quarter-century at the university. A press release touted his contributions to the revitalization of downtown Durham, including the resuscitation of the American Tobacco Campus, championing the Durham Performing Arts Center, and moving some three thousand Duke employees into the city’s core. 

“Tallman will rightfully be remembered at Duke for his steady transformation of our campus,” Duke President Vincent Price said. 

Maybe that’s how he’ll be remembered at Duke. But that’s probably not how he’ll be remembered in Durham. 

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at jbillman@indyweek.com.

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