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City plans for light rail progress after receiving federal approval

<p>The proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail would have stops near Duke University Medical Center and on Ninth Street.</p>

The proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail would have stops near Duke University Medical Center and on Ninth Street.

Plans for a proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail Line are moving forward after receiving federal approval.

The Federal Transit Administration and GoTriangle, the Research Triangle regional public transportation authority, issued a document in February stating that the environmental review of the project had been completed and issues about where to lay the tracks resolved. The planned 17-mile route includes stops near Duke University Medical Center, Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Ninth Street and the University of North Carolina hospitals in Chapel Hill. 

The federal approval represents a big step forward in the planning process for the light rail, said Jeffrey Sullivan, public involvement associate for GoTriangle.

“We believe we are the first project of this size to complete an environmental impact statement that results in a combined federal environmental impact statement and record of decision,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan noted that the Congressionally-mandated process was challenging to complete during a two-year timeline. The final statement is a collection of responses to stakeholder input from the draft impact statement, which includes the required empirical studies.

“It was a big commitment from the federal government to review our document and offer their suggestions and help to get it done,” Sullivan said. “It’s a lot to undergo in 24 months, so it’s something that we’re definitely proud of.”

With federal agreement, GoTriangle expects to enter the project engineering phase later this spring, which will allow the organization to move forward with design choices for the stations, secure property rights and solidify funding commitments. The engineering phase is expected to last until 2019, when construction will begin. The light rail is expected to be operational by 2026, according to the Our Transit Future website.

Despite progress in planning, questions remain about whether state legislators will remove the $500,000 cap on funding for transit projects included in last year's legislative session.

The North Carolina State House of Representatives voted to remove the cap Sept. 28, but it remains to be seen whether the Senate will opt to do so in its upcoming short session beginning in April.

Bernadette Pelissier, secretary of the GoTriangle Board of Trustees, said she believes that the state funding cap will likely be lifted because of support for transit initiatives in the business communities in the Triangle and in Charlotte, which is looking to add extensions to its current light rail system. She noted that she expects these business interests to be active in discussions about transit when the short session begins.

“Three of the 10 largest employers in the entire state of North Carolina are on this light rail lot— Duke, UNC and UNC Hospitals,” Pelissier said. “So I have faith that that cap will be lifted.”

Sullivan also expressed optimism about the prospects of state funding for the project.

“It has been very important to many of our local leaders,” he said. “We feel that a lot of the state legislators are beginning to understand that.”

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