After receiving support from local authorities this week, the Durham-Orange light rail’s cost-sharing agreement is headed to the Federal Transit Administration for review.
The Durham-Orange light rail—a 17.7 mile project that would connect Durham and Orange Counties and feature stops at Duke, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina Central University—is slated to be complete by 2028. To help finance the operation, planners had been working on a cost-sharing agreement, which was finally approved by four local authorities, including the Durham County Commission Monday and the Orange County Commission Thursday, as well as the Metropolitan Planning Organization and GoTriangle—the regional public transportation authority—Friday.
These decisions represent another step forward in the lengthy process of establishing a regional light rail, said Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham Board of County Commissioners.
“The past few months it’s been very challenging because we just had a very tight timeline—really two months to update our plans and come up with a negotiated cost share with Orange County,” Jacobs said.
Initially, the project had qualified for significant state funding, which would have filled close to a quarter of the project's budget. Jacobs noted, however, that the original cost-sharing agreement had to be revised after the North Carolina state legislature opted to cap state funding for the project at 10 percent.
In addition to the projected federal and state funding, the project will gather the remaining 40 percent from local governments.
The revised cost-sharing agreement will divide the local share, with Durham County covering 81.5 percent, Orange County paying 16.5 percent and the remaining two percent coming from funding from a community collaborations. Jacobs explained that Durham will be responsible for the majority of the local costs for several reasons, including the placement of 14 of the 18 stops in Durham County jurisdiction.
She added that local businesses and universities have been financially supportive of the project and that their contributions have counted toward in-kind donations for the local share of the project.
“We have already signed a number of [memorandums of understanding] with Duke, with UNC Chapel Hill and many large property owners along the light rail corridor,” Jacobs said. “Really all of our universities—NCCU, Duke, UNC Chapel Hill—they are all strongly behind this project.”
First-year Gino Nuzzolillo—senator for the Durham and regional affairs committee of Duke Student Government—noted that he would personally welcome the greater connection between Duke and other local universities that the light rail was partially designed to bring. He noted, however, that it is still too early to tell how the light rail will impact surrounding communities.
“While on DRA, we would love to have more avenues to work with UNC and other schools. We’re also really concerned about what Duke does that affects the neighboring community and whether those changes good or bad” he said. “So while the light rail might seem like a really cool project—and I think it’s a really cool project—we’d like to see more of how is this going to affect the rest of Durham’s residents.”
GoTriangle will now send the approved cost-sharing agreement to the Federal Transit Association, with the goal of receiving federal funding for 50 percent of the project’s estimated $3.3 billion dollar cost.
Jacobs noted that although many of the project's prospects look promising thus far, moving the light rail forward will require continued diligence.
“It’s exciting—it’s something that we just have to keep working on,” she said.