Following a four-hour-long closed session of its Board of Trustees this afternoon, GoTriangle released a statement indicating that Duke University will refuse to sign an agreement to proceed with the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project ahead of tomorrow’s deadline, which is part of its application for federal funding

Without that agreement, the $3.3 billion light-rail project, more than a decade in the making, might be dead. 

“For more than a decade,” GoTriangle said the a statement, which was read by Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who chairs the agency’s Board of Trustees, “and more intensely over the past year, GoTriangle and local elected officials have worked closely with the university to address concerns so Duke’s action today is especially disappointing. This is a major setback for the Durham and Orange County communities and the entire Triangle region. GoTriangle will work with the elected officials in Durham and Orange Counties and the Federal Transit Administration to assess all available options and decide upon a course of action.”

GoTriangle also needs agreements from two railroad companies that say they want to see more detailed plans for how the rail line will travel along their tracks downtown. 

GoTriangle President and CEO Jeff Mann told the INDY GoTriangle was still reviewing a letter from Duke – sent early Wednesday – and a second letter from the North Carolina Railroad Company – received while the GoTriangle Board of Trustees were meeting – and what they mean for the project.

The three agreements were the last ones GoTriangle needed as part of its application for federal grant funding. The transit agency is seeking $1.2 billion from the FTA and is on a tight deadline to do so. State legislators are requiring that—in order for the project to remain eligible for up to $190 million in state funding—GoTriangle needs all local funding commitments to be made by April 30 and needs a federal funding commitment by November 30.

GoTriangle has said it needs to finish applying for federal funding by April 30 in order to get a federal funding commitment in time. The outstanding agreements, as well as a land donation from Duke, could also count against GoTriangle on a pending risk assessment from the FTA that will be used to determine how much contingency needs to be built into the project budget. 

“The FTA has indicted that we must have these cooperative agreements in time for them to process the application,” Mann said. “As we move further and further toward that November date, the risks of them not being able to do that increase … [February 28] is a target and we need to get with the FTA now that we know that Duke will not sign the cooperative agreement and determine what that means.”

GoTriangle has been working with Duke for years on light rail plans, but a new document released by GoTriangle this week (and first reported by The News & Observer) says the university did not raise concerns currently holding up the cooperative agreement until recently. A Duke spokesperson did not answer an email from the INDY seeking a response to that assertion. 

In the document, GoTriangle says Duke has been involved in light rail planning for nearly twenty years, including Duke vice president Tallman Trask III, who is currently the university’s point-person on the project. But starting in 2016, GoTriangle says “meetings with Duke began to reveal bizarre contradictions, complications, and general dissatisfaction” with the light rail project. Meeting notes detail how GoTriangle tried to accommodate Duke’s concerns and meet changing requests to alter the light-rail alignment and location of the station near Duke’s medical facilities. 

On Wednesday afternoon, GoTriangle released the letter Duke officials sent explaining the university’s rationale. 

“Significant efforts by many people from Duke and GoTriangle have been made over the past year to resolve a number of critical issues connected to the proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit (DOLRT) project,” Trask, Duke president Vincent Price, and chancellor for health affairs A. Eugene Washington wrote. “Notwithstanding these many good-faith efforts, it has unfortunately not been possible to complete the extensive and detailed due diligence, by the deadlines imposed by the federal and state governments, that is required to satisfy Duke University’s, legal, ethical and fiduciary responsibilities to ensure the safety of patients, the integrity of research, and continuity of our operations and activities.

“The DOLRT is a complex undertaking that has only become more complicated as we have mutually sought to address the numerous technical and financial challenges that come from attempting to place an elevated electric rail line within 150 feet of the most densely concentrated corridor of patient care and biomedical research facilities in the state.”

Specifically, the Duke officials cited electromagnetic interference “with current and future patient care and research devices” near Duke University Hospital, vibration near Duke Hospital and the Duke Eye Center, disruption to power and other utilities due to construction, and liability concerns. 

GoTriangle’s report says Duke didn’t raise “significant discussion” about noise, vibration, and EMI from construction and operation of the line until late November 2017. 

GoTriangle is also seeking a land donation- worth $16.5 million from Duke. The agency needs the land to make way for the line, and the donation would count toward the $102 million the nonprofit GoTransit Partners is trying to raise as part of the meeting the states April 30 deadline to have all local funding line up. 

In an op-ed, Durham City Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton suggested using eminent domain to take the land, as GoTriangle had done to make way for a planned operations and maintenance facility, and as had been done in the 1960s to build the Durham Freeway through what had been a flourishing black community. 

Asked about using eminent domain to get Duke’s land, Reckhow says “that is an option” but declined to say whether it was feasible given the constraints of the project.

GoTriangle has also taken steps to address concerns from the North Carolina Railroad Company, which owns the existing rail tracks through downtown Durham that the light rail tracks would run alongside, and from Norfolk Southern, which leases the tracks. The two companies didn’t want to share crossing signals with the light rail, and wouldn’t sign onto needed agreements.

At the same time, downtown stakeholders objected to GoTriangle’s plans to close Blackwell Street to traffic where the light rail tracks would cross (and where rail tracks currently cross) in order to prevent vehicles from getting stuck on the tracks. 

In December, GoTriangle proposed tunneling the light rail under that intersection, assuaging the concerns of downtown stakeholders and eliminating any interaction between the light rail and rail traffic there. The plan also separated the light rail from the railroads’ vicinity at five other intersections downtown by tunneling, elevating, or shifting the line. 

But the railroads still didn’t get on board. According to GoTraingle, both companies acknowledged that the changes proposed downtown – estimated to cost $80 million to $100 million – were designed to answer their concerns but said they wanted to see more detailed plans before signing on. 

In a letter to GoTriangle officials NCRR says while the plans for the downtown alignment are “vastly improved” more design work needs to be done and details of a lease agreement that GoTriangle also needs must still be ironed out. 

“We are happy to participate in those meetings with the FTA  in order to verify that NCRR is committed to executing a lease upon approval of acceptable final plans, and to see the project through to compeltion as the issues between the many partiers to GoTriangle’s plan continue to be addressed,” NCRR’s chair and president wrote.

GoTriangle declined to comment on the pending negotiations with the railroads and both Norfolk Southern and NCRR referred the INDY’s questions to GoTriangle.

The biggest obstacle, however, is Duke, which argued that, though its actions may prove fatal for light rail, the university is nonetheless committed to serving the citizens of Durham. 

“Duke remains dedicated to working with GoTriangle and our community to advance sustainable and workable public transit solutions that serve the needs of all citizens, especially those who depend on public transportation,” the Duke officials wrote in their letter. “We commit to working closely with the public and private sectors to find a way forward—to innovate and to lead. 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.”

Local officials, members of the Duke community, and affordable housing and transit advocacy groups have been putting pressure on Duke in recent weeks, issuing statements and holding press conferences to underscore what they argue are the environmental and economic benefits of the project.

The Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit said Duke’s decision not to sign onto the project “will rank alongside Duke calling in city police to gas and beat students fifty years ago as one of the two worst decisions in the University’s history,” referring to Duke’s reaction to the 1969 Allen Building Takeover.

On Twitter, Durham City Council member Charlie Reece called Duke’s decision a “staggering betral” of its moral obligation to support Durham as its wealthiest institution.

“Duke’s decision to kill the light rail project sadly reinforces the worst fears of many Durham residents – that Dule University is an arrogant and elitist enclave with little interest in being the kind of partner this city needs.” 

3 replies on “Duke University Probably Just Killed Light Rail”

  1. Hooray for Duke! Way to go! Now let’s get to the real future of transportation…autonomous vehicles.

  2. Good. It was a poorly managed boondoggle to begin with. For the budgeted cost alon you could buy every man woman and child in Chapel Hill and Durham a $5000 car. And thats not counting the almost guaranteed cost overruns. The proposed route alignment is all wrong and would not have good ridership. Doesn’t go to the airport or Raleigh. There is already a lawsuit over illegal spot zoning of the rail maintenance yard in south Durham that has a good chance of winning. We need to dismiss the current go Triangle planners of this thing and get some competent folks to do this thing right. Maybe instead of whining about Duke, Capitol Broadcasting, NC RR, we should consider the possibility the group wisdom was this thing had issues. And needs to be reconsidered from a planning and cost perspective.

  3. Any anyway, why would Duke want to create a connection to those black people over at NCCU? Direct and open access between the slave quarters and the plantation house? That is way too terrifying. Duke was never going to support this.

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