Some local residents are urging Triangle officials to keep the hope of the seventeen-mile Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project alive, despite concerns about the DOLRT's $1.8 billion price tag. But Durham city council member Charlie Reece, in an email sent Monday to one such resident, said he has "strong reservations about attempting to fund DOLRT without a more robust funding commitment from the state of North Carolina." And that seems unlikely.
Virtually every elected official in Durham and Orange County has, at one time or another, spoken in favor of light rail. But funding the project—or, as Reece put it, filling the funding gap "created by the General Assembly"—is the main concern.
The plan originally called for Wake, Orange, and Durham counties to cover a quarter of the project's cost, the state another quarter, and the federal government half—the same way construction of light rail in Charlotte, which opened in 2007, was financed. Durham County passed a half-cent sales tax for this purpose in 2011, and Orange County followed suit in 2012. But the then-Republican-heavy Wake County Board of Commissioners refused to take action. Hence, the proposed rail line from Durham to Chapel Hill.
As for the remaining three-quarters of the funding, meant to come from the state and feds, no one's sure if it'll actually show up. Last year, the legislature slipped into the budget a last-second provision that capped spending on light rail projects at $500,000—a tiny fraction of the more than $400 million the state was supposed to cough up. That was later repealed, but another cap included in this year's budget says multicounty transportation services like light rail can't receive more than 10 percent of their funds from the state. That means the state can only spend $160 million on the Durham-Orange line, which leaves the line some $240 million short. And unless that gap gets filled in, it's unlikely that the federal government would pitch in its part.
Faced with this dilemma, GoTriangle has asked local governments to sign letters pledging to find additional funds. Earlier this month, Orange County commissioners voted 5–2 to do just that. On Monday night, the Durham County Board of Commissioners followed suit. Next Monday, the Durham City Council will have its turn.
The question is, in the absence of the state's help, how deep the city is willing to dig.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Money Trouble."