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GoTriangle calls off Durham-Orange light-rail project

The project would have built a 17.7-mile light-rail system to connect Chapel Hill and eastern Durham, North Carolina.
Photo – WSP


GoTriangle's board yesterday voted unanimously to discontinue the $2.7 billion Durham-Orange light-rail transit project, following Duke University's refusal last month to sign a cooperative agreement that would have allowed the project to proceed.

The project would have built a 17.7-mile light-rail system to connect Chapel Hill and eastern Durham, North Carolina. Acting on GoTriangle President and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Mann's recommendation, the board voted to recommend that the cost-sharing partners in Durham and Orange counties and the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization discontinue the project.

After the meeting, Mann said in a prepared statement that the project had been considered the "spine of Durham and Orange counties' transit plans" since voters in 2011 and 2012 approved a half-cent sales tax to invest in transit improvements.

"Over the years, the two counties have used this approved light-rail alignment as a basis for land-use, economic development and affordable housing plans to best accommodate the more than 7,000 people the counties are adding each year," said Mann. "Unfortunately, this project has recently faced a number of significant challenges, most notably Duke University’s refusal to sign necessary agreements with GoTriangle."

Mann cited several other "challenges" to the project, including recent state law changes that would have resulted in less state funding for the project and state-imposed deadlines for non-federal and federal funds to be received for construction.

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

Also, the agency has not yet reached a final agreement with the state-owned North Carolina Railroad that also is necessary for the project to advance. Other concerns about the project had called for changes to the plan that would have required a new tunnel option in downtown Durham, he said.

"In part because of the proposed design changes in downtown Durham and the unresolved agreements, the FTA [Federal Transit Administration] recently sent GoTriangle staff a draft risk assessment report stating that an additional $237 million in project costs and contingency must be built into the project budget," said Mann.

Last week, Mann traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with FTA officials, who indicated all the uncertainty meant it's no longer practical to expect a full funding grant agreement by November, according to Mann's statement.

"That means this project would not be able to meet the Nov. 30 deadline set by the legislature and therefore would no longer be eligible for any state funding," he said.

Based on all those circumstances, Mann recommended that the project be discontinued.

"It pains me to make this recommendation," he said. "We remain committed to improving transit in the Triangle and will work with our county partners to determine what elements of the existing community investment can be repurposed as we move forward."

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

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