Just last week, the future of Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit looked like a nail-biter.

Some powerful downtown stakeholders had turned on the project, worried that GoTriangle’s plans to close Blackwell Street to traffic would cut off the American Tobacco Campus from the rest of downtown. That snag was also holding up needed agreements with Duke University and the rail company Norfolk Southern, both of which have concerns about how light rail would affect their own operations. Given light rail’s tight timetable, any glitch could prove fatal for a project in which the region has already invested more than $100 million. So headed into the New Year, its fate seemed uncertain. 

But then, on Friday evening, GoTriangle proposed a solution, a last-minute alternative to closing Blackwell Street: It would dig a tunnel under downtown.

Details need to be filled in, not least of which is how much such an endeavor will add to light rail’s $2.47 billion price tag. But if this kink is indeed worked out, then light rail’s prospects are considerably better now than they were at the beginning of 2018, when a leaked memo suggested that the Trump administration wanted to gut funding for these kinds of infrastructure projects. 

Instead, however, this year’s federal spending bill actually increased funds for the type of grant GoTriangle is seeking. And in the next Congress, U.S. Representative David Price, a Democrat and light rail proponent who represents Wake and Orange Counties, will become chairman of the key House Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, helping to secure the project’s fortunes at the national level.

Moreover, in November, North Carolina Democrats succeeded in breaking Republican supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, foreclosing the Republicans’ ability to further meddle with a project they clearly despise. Last year, the GOP nearly derailed the entire thing with a provision inserted behind closed doors into the state budget. Democratic legislators managed to get that language removed, but to do so, they had to agree to new project deadlines that give GoTriangle until only November to secure a federal grant that will cover half of the project’s costs. If GoTriangle fails, the state will pull its share of the funding. 

To get the federal grant in time to meet the state’s deadline, GoTriangle must finish its application by April. The legislature also required the project to secure all of its non-state and non-federal funding by April 30—including its fundraising efforts through the nonprofit GoTransit Partners, which is tasked with raising $102.5 million in land and cash. 

With so much happening so close to those deadlines, there’s a sense that major decisions are being made at the last minute. 

Orange County Commissioner Renee Price says she’s had to hear about developments—like concerns raised by Duke University president Vincent Price about the rail alignment, departures from GoTransit Partners, and the resignation of a subcontractor who had come under scrutiny after a past felony conviction surfaced—from the news, rather than from GoTriangle. 

Durham City Council member DeDreana Freeman also criticized the agency’s communications during a public hearing earlier this month to rezone property for a rail operations and maintenance facility. Several residents around the site said they had little information about what the facility will mean for their neighborhoods other than a noise study GoTriangle released in October and walked back that night. 

Unexpected changes to the project are making it “less and less appealing to the point where people who are proponents of light rail are standing in opposition,” Freeman said then.

“In the past, they’ve done a really good job of being active proponents for whatever they were working on, but for the light rail, I don’t know if they just fell asleep,” she told the INDY. “It’s a lot easier when the rules change for people to stay on board if they know who is making the decisions and how. Right now, it’s all in a vacuum of a lot of conversations no one else will hear.”

This late in the game, however, there’s little time for prolonged public debate. Because of the legislature’s deadline, GoTriangle can’t go back to the drawing board, says state Senator Floyd McKissick, who helped revive the project during last summer’s budget debacle. “Changes? Absolutely. Modifications? Yes. Refinements? Yes. Major re-engineering decisions? Not on the timeline we’re on today.”

The idea of closing Blackwell Street to traffic and installing a “signature civic space” came as a surprise even to those close to the project and drew consternation from the likes of American Tobacco, the Durham Bulls, and the Durham Performing Arts Center, as well as Downtown Durham Inc. GoTriangle’s proposal was cited by two people who resigned from the board of GoTransit Partners—Brad Brinegar, chairman of the advertising firm McKinney, which has an office on Blackwell Street, and Michael Goodmon, an executive at Capitol Broadcasting Company, which owns WRAL, the American Tobacco Campus, and the Durham Bulls. (Goodmon declined to be interviewed for this story.)

While the possibility of bifurcating downtown’s central business district from the American Tobacco area has been raised before, the need to close the Blackwell Street rail crossing wasn’t discovered until about halfway through the design process, says Jeff Mann, GoTriangle’s president and CEO.

“Anytime you develop major infrastructure through an urbanized area like downtown Durham, there will be impacts,” says Mann. “We very much would have liked to have known earlier in the process that that would be required.”

“We gathered fifty downtown stakeholders together on Thursday, and there was strong support in the group for the tunnel taking the light rail under Blackwell and Mangum Streets,” Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said in a GoTriangle statement on the proposal. “We’ll be incurring significant costs with this solution, but it will allow us to get the light rail built, and that’s crucial for our region over the next 100 years.”

How significant will those costs be? Initial estimates weren’t available by press time, but Wendy Jacobs, chairwoman of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, says the $20 million budgeted for the proposed civic space can go toward the tunnel. That’s probably a drop in the bucket. According to a January article in CityLab, a mile of underground rail in Seattle costs $600 million; in Los Angeles, it’s $900 million.  

If the tunnel is deemed feasible, it would help GoTriangle finalize agreements with Norfolk Southern and Duke, which was worried about how the project would affect downtown. In another effort to appease Duke, GoTriangle has also agreed to elevate the line along Erwin Road in order to preserve vehicle access and utility service to Duke’s hospital. 

But, according to a letter last month from Price, the university isn’t convinced that light rail won’t disrupt its medical facilities. For example, Duke wants to be sure vibration from construction or the trains won’t interfere with procedures at its eye clinic, though GoTriangle says it has identified no vibration impacts on the line. GoTriangle is seeking a property donation from Duke worth $16.5 million, and Duke has agreed to work with the agency toward finalizing an agreement for the donation by year’s end. 

While conversations with Duke have been productive, Mann says, it’s unlikely GoTriangle will get an agreement with Norfolk Southern—which doesn’t want its trains to share crossing-protection systems with light rail at six downtown crossings, including Blackwell—or a lease agreement from the North Carolina Railroad Company, which owns the rail tracks downtown, by the end of the year. The Federal Transit Administration, from which GoTriangle is seeking the federal grant, wanted GoTriangle secure those agreements before 2019 to stay on track with its grant application.

All of this uncertainty could do more than generate anxiety. It could also have affected how light rail performed on a risk assessment the FTA recently conducted. 

The assessment, conducted from November 27–30, included a review of risks the project may face, the likelihood of those risks occurring, and how they would affect the project schedule. The greater the risk, the more the project needs to stash away in contingency funding—perhaps more than the 20 percent built into the current project budget. (The FTA’s assessment had not been completed as of Friday.)

Durham city and county staffers are working with GoTriangle to look for money in case of a shortfall—Orange County commissioners have said they won’t kick in any more funds—like a higher contingency. 

There could also be problems on the fundraising side: According to an October 24 project update presented to the GoTriangle Board of Trustees, these unresolved matters have also “slowed” GoTransit Partners’ fundraising—and that was before the high-profile departures from the nonprofit’s board. 

Thus far, GoTransit Partners has only raised about $14.5 million, meaning it has another $88 million to go by April 30. Duke’s donation would more than double what they’ve already taken in. (Donations can also be made in exchange for naming rights to stations and the line itself.)

“With Duke’s support and property commitment, GoTransit Partners remains optimistic about completing their fundraising goal,” says GoTriangle spokesman Mike Charbonneau. 

So with 2019 right around the corner, what do light rail’s chances look like? 

McKissick says he’s “cautiously optimistic.” David Price says he’s confident federal funding will be there if the DOLRT makes the FTA’s cut, no matter how budget negotiations go over the next few weeks. 

Renee Price, the Orange County commissioner, still has concerns about the project’s cost and whether it will serve residents who truly need mass transit. Regardless, though, she believes light rail is coming. 

“When you hear that G.K. Butterfield and David Price, both of our congressmen, are behind it,” she says, “and you’ve got the mayors of the two cities behind it as well as the town council, the city council, as well as the commissioners—there is a lot of political will for this to go forward. And when you consider the millions of dollars that are spent every month, personally, I hope they can figure something out.”


One reply on “After a Rough Year Filled With Near-Death Experiences, Light Rail Emerged (Mostly) Unscathed”

  1. This will be fianancially disastrous for Durham and Orange County, bring down home values, is too close to neighborhoods and the school, and increase congestion in an already tight area with only 2 lanes. It is the wrong place to build this type of thing and the rezoning shows that. Why did Wake County pull out…because it is clearly not well thought out and will be a huge drain. There is also the issue of water and flooding in an area already prone to that. two thumbs down. :((

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