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Have questions about proposed Durham-Orange light rail? We have you covered

Courtesy of GoTriangle
Courtesy of GoTriangle

The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project plans to connect Durham and Orange Counties with a 17.7-mile light rail line that has 19 stations, including University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Hospitals, Duke Medical Center and North Carolina Central University. The Chronicle has compiled this guide to answer some burning questions you might have about the proposed project.

Q: Where did the idea for the light rail come from? 

The Triangle area—between Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Durham—is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country, with over 80 people moving in per day, according to the project's website. Plans for a transit system began more than 20 years ago, and subsequent studies have indicated that connecting Durham and Chapel Hill is an important area for investment.

“If we don’t have the light rail, we will be the largest metro area in the country without a rail system, so if we’re going to remain competitive, we have got to have the light rail,” Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, Trinity '73, said.

Q: What are its goals and potential benefits?

The goals are not only to curtail traffic congestion, but also to increase access to quality health care, educational opportunities and jobs. The light rail connects both major hospitals in the Triangle, as well as three of the 10 largest employers in the area. Schewel said that it will also increase affordable access to jobs, being within a mile of two-thirds of affordable housing in Durham. Furthermore, he explained that the light rail is the the best way to fight climate change in the Triangle by decreasing car usage and keeping the air clean.

“It’s a transformational project for our region,” the mayor said. “We’re either going to have the light rail, or we’re going to be stuck in traffic on all of our major roadways for the next 50 years.”

Q: What are Duke's main concerns about the proposed project?

President Vincent Price has expressed concerns that construction of the light rail may impact the efficiency of the hospital and research projects. Building the station on Erwin Road in front of Duke Hospital may block patient and emergency vehicle access to the city’s only Level 1 trauma center. Road closures from construction could impact areas like Trent Drive, according to Price's letters to local officials.

Price has said he is concerned that noise and vibrations may affect medical and research operations, and he wants a 100-foot buffer around the Global Health Research Building. He also wants to ensure that an electricity line critical to the hospital will not get disrupted. 

Some traffic would likely be redirected due to construction, and Price has expressed worry that these changes will reduce access to and hurt the growth of downtown Durham. 

“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 in the letter to local officials.

Price has appointed Executive Vice President Tallman Trask as the University's principal liaison for light rail discussions.

Q: How is the city addressing Duke’s concerns?

In order to avoid issues with a street-level track, the new plans include a $90 million elevated track on Erwin Road, which will be built in phases to allow for emergency transportation. Duke Energy has approved the location of the elevated track. 

Addressing noise concerns, GoTriangle has claimed that the light rail should be quieter than current traffic. Schewel said that portions of the light rail downtown will be in a tunnel that runs under Pettigrew, Mangum and Blackwell Streets to keep the roads open. 

Q: How will the light rail impact both Durham residents, as well as Duke students and faculty?

Although there will be construction for a few years, Schewel said that the proposed project would have 100 years of positive impact, particularly for people commuting for work. The University is the largest employer in the area. 

Schewel added that the light rail will also be a net positive for students because they will be able to get downtown quicker than usual, and it will increase connectivity between the universities in the Triangle. 

Q: Where does Duke stand now?

GoTriangle has to sign a cooperative agreement with 11 organizations, one of them being Duke, which has not yet signed the agreement. The University giving approval is critical to the success of the light rail, as the Erwin Road station is expected to be the second-most popular stop, according to GoTriangle documents

It will be important for the city to cooperate with Duke in terms of construction, Schewel said, and the Duke administration has been extremely helpful and cooperative. He said he looks forward to getting the agreement with Duke signed soon.

Q: How would it be paid for?

The light rail is projected to cost $2.476 billion. The Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program is expected to pay for around half of the cost. Durham County will have 15 stations and is expected to pay 30 percent of the cost, whereas Orange County will have four stations and should pay for 6 percent. A half-cent increase in sales tax in both counties will go toward the light rail. 

The remaining costs would be covered by the state and other sources, but Schewel put the cost in perspective by noting that it costs a billion dollars just to build one lane on Interstate 40 from Durham to Raleigh.

Q: What is its timeline?

The hopes of a transit system in the Triangle area began 20 years ago with a few unsuccessful attempts, Schewel said. The light rail pre-planning and project planning took place from 2008 to 2016. Final design and engineering is expected to be completed by 2020, and construction is projected to start in 2020 and be completed in 2028.

Q: Which other cities have a light rail?

Many other major cities have implemented a light rail, including Charlotte, which is currently constructing a 9.4-mile extension for its 9.6-mile line. Other cities with a light rail include Seattle/Tacoma, Wash., St.Paul/Minneapolis, Minn., and Portland, Ore.

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