Light rail plan for Durham, Orange counties draws divided opinions

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A proposed light rail project in Durham and Orange counties could lose federal money if the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) doesn’t get answers to some questions by April.

The federal government is currently set to pay for half of the $2.5 billion project. Another 30 percent would come from dedicated money from counties, including from sales tax and vehicle registration money.

UPDATE: Dozens attend Orange County meeting about light rail

It still isn’t clear where the last 20 percent of the funding would come from, according to Mike Charbonneau, director of communications for GoTriangle. The state had been slated to contribute 25 percent, but in 2016 the state put a cap of 10 percent on all rail projects.

The line would include direct stops at locations including UNC, Duke and North Carolina Central University.

Orange County commissioners were scheduled to discuss the project at their regular 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday after the Federal Transit Administration raised concerns.

The FTA sent a letter to GoTriangle last month stating, “FTA does not believe 30 percent” of the local money is committed to the project, which is required.

The letter went on to say that proof of the commitment of local money is “outdated, quoting a project cost of $1.3 billion rather than the current $2.5 billion.”

“The numbers that are in that agreement are not an apples-to-apples comparison because they did not yet have the full finance charges, that addition of North Carolina Central University in there,” Charbonneau said.

Charbonneau said the letter came after documentation was submitted to the FTA in December.

“The FTA is just looking for clear documentation showing that both counties understand the commitment, that that money is there and that they are on board with the whole funding process.”

He said three of the largest employers in the state, Duke University, Duke Medical Center and UNC Medical Center, are along the proposed 17.7 mile track.

Sue Hunter works in Durham and commutes from Chapel Hill.

“Light rail serves an important purpose connecting people between our large employers,” she said.

While she doesn’t live near one of the 18 stops, she said she sees value.

“I think a lot of younger people today are not interested in owning cars so you have to consider the future, and we have to build for the future and develop our infrastructure,” she said. “It’s not necessarily about those of us who are driving cars now.”

Hunter wrote a letter to Orange County commissioners urging them to continue with the project and planned to be at Tuesday’s meeting.

Bonnie Hauser, who founded the grassroots organizations “Orange County Voice” also planned to be at the meeting – to oppose the light rail.

“We don’t like light rail for Orange County,” she said, noting that Orange County has 2.85 miles of the 17.7 mile line with four of 18 stations. Two stations are in Chapel Hill city limits, but inside Durham County lines.

“I think at this point people just want an honest conversation about what’s the service, how much it’s going to cost, how long are we going to be paying for it? What’s the risk to the orange county taxpayer.” she said.

The FTA has remaining questions too. In its letter, the agency said, “It is unclear to FTA what exact dollar amount the local funding partners have agreed to provide.”

The agency is giving GoTriangle until the end of April to provide more information documenting the commitment of the local money.

If that does not happen, “no further extension of the project development phase will be approved,” the agency said. And, “the project will automatically be withdrawn.”

Hunter hopes that does not happen.

“I think it would be a loss to our community. We do need to address the cost issue, but I don’t think we need to abandon the entire project because of that. I think it’s important to have this conversation. There isn’t one transit tool that fits all situations,” she said.

Hauser is fine with holding off on light rail.

“If we don’t make this April deadline, it could cost two or three years, but this is something that we’re going to be living with for many, many years to come. So, let’s take our time and get it right,” she said.

Several Orange County commissioners said the board is divided on the issue.

While the topic is expected to create discussion, commissioners do not plan to vote on any decisions Tuesday.

GoTriangle officials will sit down with Durham and Orange county leaders Friday.

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