Durham County commissioners gave their approval Monday night to an updated transit plan that includes light rail, commuter rail, and improvements to bus service.
The commissioners’ approval was one of the final stops for light rail plans
before being submitted to the Federal Transit Administration as part of a grant application. GoTriangle, the agency heading up the project, must submit the plans to the FTA by the end of the month in order to move from the planning phase of the grant process to the engineering phase.
Board chairwoman Wendy Jacobs called it “the most important vote that I will make as a county commissioner.”
“Many people have worked very hard on this agreement and this plan because we all realize that that this project is about the future of Durham, Orange, and Wake counties,” she said. “We also all realize that this is just the very first step. There are still many uncertainties related to state and federal funding. But we know that as leaders, we must do our best to move this vision forward. This will be an ongoing effort that will take the commitment and persistence to ensure that the promise of light rail in areas such as the creation of affordable housing is realized.”
Just two residents spoke during a public hearing on the plan. Dan Jewell extolled light rail as a way to encourage growth throughout the city and provide transportation to underserved areas. James Chavis voiced concerns about Alston Avenue businesses and residents being displaced to accommodate the extension of the light rail route to N.C. Central.
GoTriangle representatives said the organization has been in contact with residents by mail and during community meetings about properties it would need to acquire to build light rail. Plans call for Alston Avenue to be widened to accommodate a median for the light rail track and for a parking garage to be constructed east of Alston Avenue.
According to GoTriangle
, before the N.C. Central stop was added in November, the project called for 92 potential full acquisitions, 138 potential partial acquisitions, and 65 displacements. The extension will add 34 new full acquisitions, 5 new partial acquisitions, and 23 additional displacements. Full acquisitions mean the entire parcel of land is acquired and its use is changed. Partial acquisitions use part of a parcel of land, with the remaining portion allowed to continue in its current use. Fourteen residences and five businesses would be displaced by the extension, says GoTriangle. Under the federal guidelines GoTriangle is following, displaced persons are eligible for relocation assistance.
The commissioners on Monday also gave their unanimous approval to a new cost-sharing agreement for the $3.3 billion project. Under the new agreement, Durham would pay 81.5 percent of the local cost of the project, and Orange would pay 16.5 percent. A Funding and Community Collaborative made up of private citizens and public sector leaders is trying to cover the remaining 2 percent. Orange County commissioners still need to vote on the cost-share agreement and their own transit plan, which they will do Thursday.
The federal New Starts Grant would pay for 50 percent of the light rail project, and planners are banking on a 10 percent contributions from the state, leaving local governments to come up with the remaining 40 percent, which comes out to about $1.9 billion. The 17.7-mile route will have eighteen stations, four of which are located in Orange County.
Locally, the project will be funded by a vehicle registration fee, a car rental fee, and a dedicated half-cent transit tax that is expected to generate $5.27 billion by 2062, when debt will be paid off on the project. Fares for light rail haven’t been approved yet, but will be used to pay for operation and maintenance of the system, which is expected to be operational in 2029.
A 2012 cost-share agreement had Durham paying about 77 percent of the project cost and Orange paying about 23 percent. But that left Orange with too little cash in its transit fund to keep contributing at the agreed-upon rate. The ratio was tweaked to solve that issue and to reflect changes to the light rail route that placed more infrastructure in Durham. Commissioner Ellen Reckhow stressed that the new cost-share agreement is a better deal for Durham than when negotiations began, when Durham’s share was 82 percent. Reckhow said that while light rail has gotten most of the attention, the transit plan also includes upgrades to regional bus service.
“We need to keep in mind that what this is about is providing mobility options for our citizens,” she said.
The updated plan now includes Durham-Wake commuter rail. Initially that project was set to begin in 2018, but because of the costs of light rail and changes to expected federal and state funding, plans are now based on a 2028 start date. Under that model, the thirty-seven-mile commuter rail line would be operational in 2036.
Plans currently call for Durham County to pay 20 percent of the local capital and operational costs of commuter rail—$175 million by 2045.
GoTriangle’s board is set to vote on the transit plans and cost-sharing agreement Friday.