Feds: Light rail budget needs another $237 million

March 2, 2019
Duke is taking heat on light rail, but there's plenty of blame to go around.

North Carolina residents have paid more than $130 million for the promise of a “congestion-free” commute, and a promise may be all they ever receive.

The light rail project in Durham and Orange counties designed to deliver on that promise is in danger of falling apart. Some community members and elected officials are placing the blame solely on Duke University — which announced Wednesday it would not support the current proposal for the project.

But Duke’s decision is only part of the reason for the project’s seeming collapse. The North Carolina Railroad also declined to sign onto the project Wednesday.

WRAL News also learned Thursday that the Federal Transit Authority has told GoTriangle to expand the project’s budget by $237 million.

According to GoTriangle, the FTA made that determination after conducting an updated risk assessment in December.

“In part because of the proposed design changes in downtown Durham to address railroad safety concerns and the unresolved agreements, a revised financial plan according to the FTA would need to include an additional $237 million in project costs and contingency,” GoTriangle spokesman Mike Charbonneau said in a statement.

“The federal Department of Transportation’s lending arm has also recently informed GoTriangle that the agency has been too conservative in some projections and can assume there will be savings from lower long-term interest rates. GoTriangle is evaluating how that will affect the project’s financial plan.”

GoTriangle trustee Sig Hutchinson said he sees Duke’s decision as just one piece of a now broken puzzle.

“I see there are multiple factors of issues associated with this,” Hutchison said. “It’s Duke, it’s the railroads, it’s the (federal government) shutdown, it’s the additional money needed. So, my feeling is it’s not one thing, but it’s a culmination of a variety of things that are creating issues that we find ourselves in today.”

“The shutdown also hurt our ability to meet the deadlines established by the General Assembly,” Hutchinson said.

In 2018, lawmakers set an April 30 deadline for GoTriangle to line up all non-state and non-federal financing. That led GoTriangle to establish a Feb. 28 deadline for Duke to make a commitment.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger isn’t buying the state deadline as an excuse.

“Well, that state deadline was an extension of the previous deadline, if I recall correctly,” said Berger, R-Rockingham.

“This thing has been talked about and planned for at least a decade, maybe even longer than that... It just strikes me that to say that a deadline that the federal government has had in place and then something that we had actually extended to give them time to work things out is the reason, I’m just not so sure about that. It just sounds like there might be more to it than that.”

Berger said no one had asked him about an extension on the April 30 deadline.

Hutchinson said GoTriangle knew about the project’s money problems.

“The board is aware that there is a budget shortfall,” he said. “There’s always been a budget shortfall.”

Duke Vice President Michael Schoenfeld said the school made the decision because construction and operation of the light rail line, proposed to run in front of Duke Hospital, would emit vibrations and electromagnetic interference that could harm patients.

“We’re certainly not going to apologize or be defensive about the potential for risk to patient safety at Duke,” Schoenfeld said. “That is our highest obligation in that area.”

And despite the withering criticism the school is now receiving, Schoenfeld is optimistic Duke and Durham will continue to be partners.

So is light rail dead?

“We don’t know,” Hutchinson said.