GoTriangle trustees voted Wednesday to recommend that Durham and Orange Counties “discontinue” the Durham-Orange Light Rail project.

“The timeline is just too challenging,” said GoTriangle CEO Jeff Mann, delivering the recommendation to the GoTriangle Board of Trustees following closed-session talks.

Trustees cast their unanimous vote after hearing about funding and timeline challenges. If the counties adopt the board’s recommendation, design work on the project would stop, but GoTriangle would “preserve” the work that has been done so far in case it can be repurposed for another transit project or conditions change, Mann said. The project has to remain active to stay in consideration for $1.2 billion in federal funding.

Mann said it “pained” him to recommend the project be discontinued, and board members were similarly disappointed. But ultimately, they decided it was the “responsible” move—as Durham Mayor Steve Schewel put it. More than $130 million in taxpayer money has already been spent on the project, and $7 million more is spent each month.

Trustee Wendy Jacobs, who chairs the Durham County Board of Commissioners, called the outcome a “nightmare” scenario, noting that Durham’s future land use and housing plans had been crafted around the project. 

“I don’t think I can overstate my disappointment in arriving at this place,” said Schewel, who is also a member of the GoTriangle board.

Mann said considering the hurdles the project has left to face, it’s no longer practical to anticipate it will get federal funding in time to meet deadlines imposed by the state.

Mann said GoTriangle met with the Federal Transit Administration last week and that officials there expressed “significant concerns” about the project. GoTriangle needed to finish applying for federal dollars by the end of next month to stay on track to meet a November 30 deadline from the state to have a federal funding commitment. 

GoTriangle still needs to secure agreements from Duke University, the North Carolina Railroad Company, and Norfolk-Southern as part of that federal funding application process. Duke announced last month it wouldn’t be signing an agreement due to concerns about the light rail’s alignment along Erwin Road. The railroad companies didn’t sign either, though they’d left the door open to continuing negotiations. 

A risk assessment by the FTA that GoTriangle received in February identified an additional $237 million in project costs. That figure includes money needed for changes proposed to the alignment downtown, as well as additional contingency costs and inflation adjustments. 

In addition, the FTA says GoTriangle needs to identify another 10 percent of the project budget for potential cost overruns. 

Altogether, that adds up to about $500 million in additional money. That doesn’t include an $87 million gap between what a nonprofit fundraising effort has raised and its $102 million goal. 

Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, who chairs the GoTriangle board, said the federal government shutdown hurt the project by delaying the release of the risk assessment; FTA officials conducted the review in late November. It also meant GoTriangle found out later that federal officials required an environmental assessment of the proposed changes downtown. 

Environmental planners with GoTriangle said that the assessment and a subsequent record of decision need to be complete before the FTA will begin to review GoTriangle’s application for $1.2 billion in federal funding. They said that could be done in August, giving the FTA three months to review the project’s application before a state deadline on November 30. GoTriangle CEO Jeff Mann said the process takes a “minimum” of six months. 

Jacobs noted that the November deadline is “artificial.” After North Carolina legislators cut the state’s contribution to the project from 25 percent to 10 percent, they wrote into the state budget last year that the state would contribute no more than $190 million to the project. In order to get that funding, legislators said, GoTriangle needs all local dollars—including the proceeds of the GoTransit Partners fundraising campaign—committed by April 30 and federal funding committed by November 30. If the project misses either deadline it will be removed from current and future consideration for state funding. 

Project manager John Tallmadge said that, in the event those deadlines aren’t met, the $190 million could be covered by making cuts to the light rail system and allocating additional local dollars. 

Among the potential cost-cutting measures: eliminating the stop at North Carolina Central University and shortening the line. Tallmadge said shortening the other end of the line—near UNC Hospitals—would render the project non-viable. Previously, GoTriangle officials told the INDY the NC Central stop could be the most used on the route. 

“Over the past six months, new challenges have made those deadlines increasingly difficult to meet and contributed to additional project costs.”

This is a breaking story. This INDY will have more as it develops.