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As deadlines loom for a Triangle light rail, Duke mulls concerns

After years of planning, local leaders trying to bring a light rail to the Triangle are facing a federal deadline for a $1.2 billion grant. 

But Duke, which would have to donate land for the planned route to work, has some questions. President Vincent Price has informed project leaders that the University wants assurances and tweaks to several aspects of the planned rail before he will recommend to the Board of Trustees that they donate the land. 

In the last two weeks, this holdout has led to a letter from Reps. David Price and G.K. Butterfield pushing for the rail and has spurred faculty members to speak out in support of the infrastructure. 

‘Duke is an absolutely critical partner on the project’

The Durham-Orange light rail project would connect Durham to Chapel Hill along a 17.7-mile line, which skirts Duke’s campus. The total project is projected to cost around $2.5 billion–the federal grant for $1.24 billion would cover half of that. 

The project earned the approval nod from the Federal Transit Administration to advance to the engineering phase in July 2017, and GoTriangle has been leading the efforts to make the project a reality. 

In addition to federal funding, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel told The Chronicle in February that the project was seeking around $200 million in state funding as well. 

The currently proposed route would brush Duke's campus on several points, and intersects with some key thoroughfares around it. 

Patrick McDonough, manager of planning and transit-oriented development for GoTriangle, said in February that GoTriangle was working with the University to plan the part of the route around Erwin Road. 

“Duke is an absolutely critical partner on the project,” McDonough told The Chronicle in February.

Part of the discussion around that part of the track is leaving enough room for emergency vehicles to access the hospital’s emergency room, meaning planners have to consider aerial tracks for part of the route. 

‘Duke is vitally interested in the success of Durham and the region’

In a pair of letters to local leaders earlier this month, Price explained Duke’s ongoing concerns about the light rail. 

After an initial letter stated Duke had lingering issues with parts of the route, Mayor Steve Schewel and Wendy Jacobs, chair of Durham County’s Board of County Commissioners, met with Price to discuss the project. 

The letters come after Price received a Nov. 16 letter from Reps. Price and Butterfield asking Duke to support the project.

“Duke is vitally interested in the success of Durham and the region, and we want to be partners with the public and private sectors in solving the urgent matter of transit for the entire community,” Price wrote.

The president reiterated Duke's lingering concerns. 

The issues listed included the closure of Blackwell Street and the accessibility of the Durham Performing Arts Center, American Tobacco Campus and other related locations. He also noted a concern about ensuring power supply for the school and medical facilities, and protecting the “continuity and safety of research and clinical activities that take place in buildings adjacent to the planned rail line.” 

Additionally, Price outlined concerns about ensuring that access to Duke Hospital’s trauma center is always unimpeded and “minimizing disruptions during the construction process” and keeping access to Trent Drive, as well as other patient transit and access points. 

“While we still have concerns about several aspects of the planned route, particularly the impact of road closings on downtown and the portion of the line that will run along Erwin Road adjacent to, and in some cases through, the Duke campus, we commit to continuing the good-faith efforts on the part of Duke, GoTriangle, and public officials to seek solutions that will ensure the health, safety and economic vitality of the community, and Duke University,” he wrote. 

Price wrote that he appreciated the project leaders’ willingness to reconsider Duke’s request to elevate the rail line over State Road 751 in order to avoid congestion and “facilitate safety.” He noted the University is looking forward to the results of a traffic study is that is being conducted in the following weeks. 

The president said that he appointed Executive Vice President Tallman Trask to be the principal liaison to GoTriangle for the relationship. 

In an email to The Chronicle, Richard Riddell, secretary to the Board of Trustees, said the Board will be briefed about the light rail concerns at its meeting this weekend. 

“I hope that these outstanding issues can be definitively resolved in a straightforward and mutually agreeable way,” Price wrote in the letter. “At that point, I will be in a position to recommend that the Board of Trustees act favorably on your request for a voluntary contribution of land and rights of way at the appropriate time.”

Bre Bradham

Bre is a senior political science major from South Carolina, and she is the current video editor, special projects editor and recruitment chair for The Chronicle. She is also an associate photography editor and an investigations editor. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief and local and national news department head. 

Twitter: @brebradham



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