You could argue that light rail was dying before Duke University killed it—that its demise was inevitable, a slow bleed that had played out over years of near-death experiences, the project lurching from one existential crisis to the next, hanging on for dear life until it could hang on no more. Duke merely put the period on an overwrought sentence. 

You might not be wrong. But you’d be letting Duke off the hook. 

The General Assembly, overtly hostile to mass transit, set the stage for last week’s drama in 2018, when it imposed an arbitrary deadline on the $3.3 billion Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project, which, in turn, set in motion of a cascade of other deadlines. The legislature gave transit agency GoTriangle until November 30 to secure $1.2 billion in federal funding, or else lose up to $190 million from the state. To do that, GoTriangle had to submit its application to the Federal Transit Administration by April. To do that, it had to negotiate a dozen or so cooperative agreements with key local partners, including Duke, by the end of February. 

Here, things went (sorry) off the rails. 

Duke wasn’t the DOLRT’s only problem, just its most acute. GoTriangle also hadn’t inked a deal with the North Carolina Railroad Company and its operating partner, Norfolk Southern. The railroad informed GoTriangle that it wasn’t ready to play ball on February 27, during a Board of Trustees meeting.  

Then there’s the money. As of January, GoTriangle’s nonprofit had only raised about $15 million of the $102.5 million in cash and land donations it needed to bring in by April 30, another legislative deadline. More important, last week the FTA told GoTriangle that it needed to find an extra $237 million to cover design changes, including a planned tunnel in downtown Durham, as well as other expenses. 

These issues were difficult, but not insurmountable, officials believed. They could figure out the money. They could keep negotiating with the railroad. (The railroad’s letter made clear that it wasn’t a hard no—it just wanted to see more design work before signing off.) They just needed Duke. 

With the clock ticking down, GoTriangle tried to shame the university. It released a timeline to The News & Observer that, in no uncertain terms, blamed Duke for the looming debacle and suggested that the school’s officials were erecting pointless obstacles and sabotaging the endeavor. 

Duke wasn’t shamed. The N&O’s story came out Tuesday. On Wednesday, Duke told GoTriangle it was out. 

The news was a gut punch. Twenty years of planning, $130 million already spent—all circling the drain. There was no good way to spin it. “It’s ninety-nine-percent dead,” Orange County commissioner and GoTriangle trustee Mark Marcoplos told me Friday. 

The people of Durham voted for light rail. They agreed to pay for light rail. But Duke ended up with a veto. 

And at the eleventh hour, Duke used it. 

This isn’t a defense of the Durham-Orange Light Rail. Any project of this scope warrants skepticism of its cost and ridership projections, of the notion that it’s the best use of mass-transit dollars. That’s beside the point. 

This is a defense of democracy. 

In 2011 and 2012, Durham and Orange County voters, respectively, approved sales-tax hikes to fund light rail. They haven’t changed their minds since. They’ve elected politicians who support the project, even as the price tag rose and the state’s share fell—from 25 percent at the outset to less than 8 percent of construction costs now. These politicians have, in turn, made light rail a centerpiece of long-term land-use and transportation planning. 

All of that just came to a screeching halt. Not because it’s unpopular. But because one wealthy institution decided that its needs matter more than everyone else’s. 

“They [are basically] saying that they should have control of a public policy decision,” says Wendy Jacobs, a GoTriangle trustee who chairs the Durham County Board of Commissioners. “The decision to pursue light rail was a public policy decision made by the governments of Durham, and that’s a complete breach by Duke to say their interests are not aligned with the public interest of Durham.”

In a post on its website February 28, Duke said it supports “a comprehensive and sensible regional transit network for our dynamic and diverse area, one that serves all citizens and makes the best and effective use of all modes of transportation, including buses, commuter rail, and light rail. We recognize the transformative effect such a plan could have on our citizens, particularly those in underserved parts of the community.”

The day before, in its letter to GoTriangle spiking light rail, Duke offered similar bonhomie: “You have our personal pledge that Duke will maintain—indeed, deepen—our mutual partnership and shared engagement with the community. We are unwavering in our commitment to address our shared challenges. Together, we can be a force for even greater good.”

None of that quite squares with what happened. (It squares more closely with the $5 million the anti-transit Charles Koch Foundation gave Duke in September, if you’re feeling conspiratorial.) Far from engaging in a “mutual partnership” to address “shared challenges,” Duke dragged things out but refused to say yes. 

Duke has its veto for one reason: The light rail line runs down Erwin Road, along Duke’s west campus and medical and research complex. For GoTriangle’s FTA application to proceed, the agency has to reach an agreement with Duke, and its nonprofit arm has to acquire a chunk of Duke property, worth $16.5 million, on which to build the line.  

The DOLRT runs down Erwin Road for two reasons: One, it makes sense. Several of the 17.7-mile line’s nineteen stops are designed to service Duke students as well as employees and patients at its medical centers and at the nearby VA hospital. 

Two, Duke agreed to it, or acquiesced to it. At least, it gave everyone the impression that it had. 

On this point, Duke has engaged in some revisionist history of late. 

In a letter to Jacobs and Durham Mayor Steve Schewel in November, Duke president Vincent Price said that “numerous and quite significant problems remain, in particular, the proposal to route and then elevate the line along Erwin Road which was never agreed to by the university, and in fact was identified as unworkable in correspondence going back decades.” 

The facts say otherwise. 

Four years ago, Duke vice president Tallman Trask III, Duke’s point-person on the project, specifically asked GoTriangle to put a station on Erwin Road, a block east of Duke Hospital, because it will “reinforce the Campus gateway.” Later in 2015, when GoTriangle crafted a key Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the route, it received well over one thousand public comments. None came from Duke. 

And the idea to elevate the line from LaSalle Road to Anderson Road, which would cost $90 million? That came from Duke, too, so as not to disrupt the hospital’s emergency access and power supply. 

By 2016, there was a Record of Decision, and the line’s route was set. Duke and GoTriangle signed a memorandum of understanding that December. 

In other words, the university had a chance to weigh in before the alignment was finalized. It chose not to. 

Duke’s president didn’t seem to realize that. Last April, Jacobs says, she visited Price, who’d taken over the university in July 2017. 

“When I sat down and talked with him about the project, I got very concerned because it was very clear to me that he didn’t, first of all, know much about it, and that he did not seem to be very supportive of transit,” she says. “He was also talking about it as if it was some type of an option and didn’t seem to understand this was not an option—this was something we had Duke’s support on.”

In the end, several local leaders concluded that Duke’s upper echelon never wanted light rail to happen, not in their backyard. They didn’t say anything earlier because “they thought someone else was going to kill it,” one area politician told me last week. 

To be sure, Duke has legitimate concerns. The letter Duke sent GoTriangle last week outlined four “unresolved challenges” related to the rail’s alignment and construction: electromagnetic interference, or EMI, from the rail line, vibration from construction, disruption to power and utilities, and liability. 

Of these, the most important is probably EMI, which has plagued light rail projects across the country, as the electromagnetic waves the rail generates can affect sensitive lab and medical equipment within a few hundred feet of the line. In 2013, EMI concerns prompted Denver officials to reroute a light rail line away from a medical center. A line on the University of Minnesota campus has reportedly disturbed research in the chemistry and medical departments. 

According to a January 25 GoTriangle memo, Duke is concerned that the DOLRT would run just 106 feet from the Global Health Research Center building, where the university conducts disease research. According to the letter Duke sent GoTriangle last week, Duke is also worried that the line will sit 150 feet from “the most densely concentrated corridor of patient care and biomedical facilities in the state.” 

GoTriangle says Trask didn’t mention EMI until November 2017. Trask—who in 2014 was accused of striking a black parking attendant with his Porsche and then calling her the N-word—suggested moving the line north and running it near the Durham Freeway, through the historically black Crest Street neighborhood, according to GoTriangle’s timeline. The logistics were impossible at that late stage, which is fortunate for Duke. Just imagine the optics.

GoTriangle tried to accommodate Duke. It provided Trask with a list of the buildings it thought might be affected by EMI, and an analysis showing what types of equipment might be at risk and how close they’d have to be to the train to be damaged. It asked Trask to provide the locations of EMI-specific equipment. Trask, according to GoTriangle, was skeptical of the agency’s analysis and decided to shop the report around to other experts. He also worried that light rail’s EMI might get in the way of future expansion. 

Last month, GoTriangle produced a new EMI modeling report. Of the sixteen buildings in the corridor GoTriangle calls Zone 3—along Erwin Road near Duke’s medical facilities—ten are at no risk of EMI impact, according to the report. Two face a potential low impact, and four, including Duke University Hospital, could see a moderate impact. The hospital’s eye center, meanwhile, contains two electron microscopes, which have a high likelihood of interference. 

But all of this depends on where sensitive instruments—electron microscopes, MRIs, etc.—are inside of these buildings. The further away from the rail, the more degraded the magnetic wave. GoTriangle needed more information. It says it asked for it in late 2017, then again in 2018.  

Duke didn’t provide it. Then time ran out.

In its letter last week, Duke said that “there have been inconsistencies in the information that has been generated to date” and “we are not yet able to determine with confidence whether the new study we received last week can adequately address this risk.”

The potential impact to Duke Hospital is nothing to sneeze at. But there are solutions. The equipment could be moved away from the rail line. The room it’s in could be shielded. The light rail system could impose operational constraints—i.e., slow the trains down—to reduce the current and thus the size of the magnetic field. In 2011, the Maryland Transit Administration used “at-the-receptor” technology to mitigate interference with the University of Maryland’s sensitive equipment.

If Duke wanted to work something out, several pro-transit sources told me last week, it could. The other problems—construction, liability, and so on—have similar workarounds. They’re only deal-killers if Duke wants them to be.  

“I’m convinced they did not try to kill this light rail project because of all the things they mentioned,” Marcoplos told me. “They did not want this project for some reason.” 

“They didn’t want the inconvenience,” added another source.

GoTriangle had tried to accommodate Duke before, in elevating the line along Erwin. Last week, though, Duke cited this elevated line—which, again, Duke suggested—as the source of the vibration it could not abide: “The proposed elevated rail line … will require excavating at least nine 40-foot deep holes in Erwin Road. This excavation will cause vibrations over a construction period of years and is far beyond the acceptable levels we impose on any public or private construction project in the vicinity of our hospital and clinics.”

This sort of thing has GoTriangle officials flustered.  

On Monday evening, GoTriangle begged Duke to reconsider. The alternative, according to CEO Jeff Mann and Board of Trustees chairwoman Ellen Reckhow, a Durham County commissioner, would mean “effectively nullifying two decades of work.” 

GoTriangle doesn’t think EMI will be a major issue, they wrote. But if it is, the agency will pay to address it. It’ll take care of relocating utilities, too. It’s offered to cover Duke on its insurance. And building the rail will cause less vibration than other construction projects currently underway around Duke’s hospital, they argued. 

“GoTriangle remains committed to working closely with Duke University to execute the cooperative agreement so we can work together in good faith during the remainder of the design and throughout construction to address any issues or concerns that may arise,” Reckhow and Mann wrote. 

What they didn’t say: What the hell else do you want?

They asked Duke to enter mediated negotiations over the next four to six weeks—the same request Jacobs says she and Schewel made two weeks ago and Price refused. Time is of the essence. The FTA reminded GoTriangle last week that “major delays” would be “cause for re-evaluation.”

The ball’s in Duke’s court. If the university won’t change course, GoTriangle has few options. It could try to take Duke’s land through eminent domain—hoping the FTA accepts the move, the General Assembly doesn’t freak out, and the agency isn’t bogged down in litigation—but that’s a long shot.  

If DOLRT collapses, GoTriangle will still forge ahead with transit, just somewhere else. Wake County is planning commuter rail, but it too will need an agreement with the North Carolina Railroad Company. “If we don’t get some support from the railroads, we’re not going to be able to do commuter rail,” says Commissioner Sig Hutchinson, a GoTriangle trustee. “It is a severe problem right now.” 

Hutchinson’s also eyeing a high-speed rail corridor that could connect Wake Forest to downtown Raleigh’s Union Station in twenty-three minutes, alleviating traffic on Capital Boulevard, and then to Apex. That and commuter rail, he says, could be the basis for a regional system. 

From there, you could restart talks with Durham and Orange Counties. But Durham and Orange would rather not wait. 

Duke has done a lot for Durham, even when the crime-ridden Durham was a liability for Duke. Through loans and grants, Duke’s Office of Durham & Regional Affairs has invested millions into affordable housing over the last decade. The university was an early partner in the American Tobacco Campus, a co-investor in the Durham Performing Arts Center, and instrumental in creating Durham Central Park. 

“Duke and Durham chose each other, and our destinies are still entwined,” former Duke president Richard Brodhead wrote in 2016, at the end of his tenure. “At Duke, we are grateful for the benefits of living in Durham, and we are committed to doing our part to increase those benefits for all.”

But that relationship changed last week, no matter how this ends. There’s no getting around that. 

Of course our fates are intertwined,” Jacobs says, “and we have to work together. But it will be different going forward. In my view, this represents a turning point.” 

On Twitter, Durham City Council member Charlie Reece put it more bluntly: “Duke’s decision to kill the light rail project sadly reinforces the worst fears of many Durham residents—that Duke University is an arrogant and elitist enclave with little interest in being the kind of partner this city needs.”

Additional reporting by Sarah Willets.

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman by email at, by phone at 919-286-9172, or on Twitter @jeffreybillman. 

11 replies on “We Spent 20 Years and $130 Million on Light Rail. Then Duke Decided It Was Inconvenient.”

  1. Duke is flawed in various ways but not in this decision. The article completely ignores the larger question of alignment, and how any of that relate to projected traffic and housing issues. The irrelevance of the track from Westgate to Duke? Why not straight down the absurd 15-501 corridor through Rockwood to S. Roxboro Rd. and Lawson and Durham Tech and out Hwy. 70 to RDU airport and Raleigh? Spurs to downtown and Duke campus. Easy. This should have been planned in a weekend in 1995, and was.

  2. Duke didn’t renege on this project so much as they realized what the GoTriangle cheerleaders had consistently failed to; there are way too many Hail Mary situations that all had to resolve perfectly in order for this abortion of common sense to progress. Thankfully the grownups at Duke could recognize a loser when they saw it and start disentangling themselves. It always baffled me how light rail was supposed to solve all of the problems that people were creating for themselves.

  3. If you spent 20 years putting $130 million in cash in piles and setting fire to them, would it be wise to spend the following 40+ years putting $4+ billion in cash in piles and setting fire to them?

    I suggest you go to any economics professor at Duke…or UNC, or NCCU (or NC State…or any other fine university) and ask the professor, “What is the ‘sunk cost fallacy'”?

    I think the professor will tell you that just because you’ve wasted money on something, it’s an error in logic to think that you should continue on to waste more money. You should “cut your losses”:

  4. I was one of many who voted for the IDEA of a light rail system back in 2012. So much has changed in the intervening six years I no longer support this system.

    The projected cost at the time was $1.4 billion – we are now approaching 3x that cost, and Durham’s share has increased.

    Proponents of light rail cite the development benefits of such a system. However, it is difficult for me to believe that THIS system, in THIS area, with THIS routing, at THIS cost will create those benefits.

    The daily ridership numbers are extremely optimistic when compared to other light rail systems, and GoTriangle has not been forthcoming with how they arrived at those numbers. See this article:

    There are other alternatives are available today – see this piece in 3/9/19 N&O:

    Finally, we are on the brink of significant technological. Uber is barely six years old, and has completely changed how we view taxis. Autonomous vehicles are not far away and will cause significant disruption.

    Durham is a progressive and forward-thinking city. Why are we building a 19th century fixed rail system and not 1ooking towards 21st century solutions?

  5. I’m a general contractor, Duke alumn and Durham resident. So I carefully read Duke’s explanations of its objections to light rail. After a mere hour on Google, I understood the lay of the land regarding the actual construction risks, their abatement, and research medical centers’ experiences with light rail. Duke’s objections to rail construction are bogus and Duke knows it — Duke regularly builds high-risk projects like, say, state-of-the-art hospital additions. They know damn well how to manage unusual risks. They are therefore using construction risk, a subject I actually know about, to pretend to the public that rail presents insurmountable difficulties.

    In fact, Duke only needs to value the public’s well-being a tiny bit more than Duke values its own most petty conveniences. Duke’s decision shows who matters and who doesn’t to Duke. Their decision shows nothing about real-life construction risk management.

  6. “Why are we building a 19th century fixed rail system and not 1ooking towards 21st century solutions?” This question was likely posed by someone who drives a vehicle designed by Henry Ford in 1896.

  7. I’ve grown convinced this is the way to go. More bang for the buck, also, not that I live in Orange County, but what happens to the tax money approved for this?

  8. I am deeply disappointed in you for writing this and Indy for allowing this article to published. They sure have come a long ways. This article is totally irresponsible of both yourself and Indy. You come across like an upset child. “We didn’t get our way so let’s blame Duke…” Help me understand something, did the people vote on the approval of the light rail??? No they did not. Whether or not it was known by most people is speculation. Sure it was known by many but I bet there was plenty of people that actually based their vote on what the words literally said. Be factual instead of giving an emotional spin on the situation. Do not claim the people wanted this light rail because mostly that is simply not true. A small group of people wanted this and some of them had/have enough pull to get the project much farther then it ever should have. I cant help but think that if the people actually supported it, the light rail would have progressed smoother and not been plagued with constant issues. I also don’t recall seeing many signs in front of people’s houses or on bumper stickers supporting it. My biggest issue with your article is that you felt you needed to try and humiliate Duke instead of be a legitimate journalist. How dare Duke care about the possibility of even a single piece of equipment not working properly due to the light rail. Don’t they realize the company who happens to want this rail to become a reality more than anyone has produced data that debunks all their concerns? The nerve of those people… What has Duke ever done for Durham anyways?” Can you see how ridiculous you sound when it’s coming from someone else? The light rail was doomed to begin with. You and everyone else knows that and hopefully the readers have enough sense to know it wasn’t Dukes fault. Considering how you came out of left field with a totally unrelated incident involving Price and the parking attendant shows me that you know it’s was t Dukes fault. That’s why you had to resort to bringing up something so unrelated. That was also the point in which you completely compromised your integrity as journalist and the point where the article became propaganda instead of anything resembling a source of news. If Indy is going to allow these personal agenda pieces to be published then they should understand that their credibility as a legitimate source of news will be compared to other media outlets like the National Enquirer. Whether people support or don’t support the light rail doesn’t matter. What matters is the manner in which you presented your opinions in this article, and that Indy thought it was appropriate to publish them.

  9. Your article states: “In 2011 and 2012, Durham and Orange County voters, respectively, approved sales-tax hikes to fund light rail.” Orange County voters never voted for tax hikes to fund light rail. We voted for tax hikes for transportation projects, a very different thing entirely. Please research the wording on the actual ballot and print what you find there.

  10. If you spent 20 years putting $130 million in cash in piles and setting fire to them, would it be wise to spend the following 40+ years putting $4+ billion in cash in piles and setting fire to them?

    I suggest you go to any economics professor at Duke…or UNC, or NCCU (or NC State…or any other fine university) and ask the professor, “What is the ‘sunk cost fallacy'”?

    I think the professor will tell you that just because you’ve wasted money on something, it’s an error in logic to think that you should continue on to waste more money. You should “cut your losses”:

  11. When anyone embarks on a project it is the lead (in this case GoTriangle) who is responsible for making sure that problems are identified by all parties and then addressed. It was and is the responsibility of GoTriangle to make sure everyone is on the same page. They’ve had years to do that. The FTA has identified a deficiency in GoTriangle’s track record in this regard. The story you tell does not include the rolling management problems at GoTriangle (they nearly hired a convicted felon to be Operations Manager) and the inability of the staff to be transparent with the public on what they are doing. Every time I attended a meeting with elected board members, I heard complaints that our elected reps’s questions were not answered. Let’s stop blaming Duke and get on to problem solving. All signs are that there are so many cost problems that this train can’t make it. We need fast practical transit that connects the Triangle.
    Here is a more balanced story of where we are.

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