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Durham residents and advocates rally, urging Duke to commit support to light rail project

Community activists and elected officials gathered at the Durham Bus Station to urge Duke University to support the Durham-Orange County Light Rail.
Community activists and elected officials gathered at the Durham Bus Station to urge Duke University to support the Durham-Orange County Light Rail.

Transit advocates gathered Thursday evening at the Durham Station to urge Duke to get on board with Durham-Orange Light Rail project.

The light rail project would connect Durham to Chapel Hill along a 17.7-mile line. The project is estimated to cost around $2.5 billion, and a federal grant for $1.24 billion would cover half of the cost. Duke would need to donate land for the currently planned route to work.

With the deadline approaching to apply for federal funding, local groups rallied at the Durham Station to call on President Vincent Price to address the University’s concerns about the light rail by the end of February. The coalition of groups included the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit, Durham Congregations in Action and the People’s Alliance.

Wib Gulley, former Durham mayor and Trinity ‘70, spoke at the rally as a representative for the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit. He commented on the relationship between Duke and Durham, and said that the University is at a “crossroads” with its connection to the local community.

“Duke and Durham are woven together, not just in our individual lives, but as institutions. We know that we are strong together, and we can do great things together,” Gulley said. “That’s why we want to say today, it’s a crossroads for the University. We want to encourage them and urge them to take the right path.”

The deadline for GoTriangle to get the agreement with Duke signed is April 30, according to the Durham-Herald Sun

That's when GoTriangle officials have to apply to the Federal Transit Administration for the $1.23 billion piece of the funding puzzle, then they have to get a federal grant by Nov. 30 to meet a state deadline and get North Carolina's $190 million puzzle piece.

The Chronicle asked Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, Thursday afternoon before the rally if the University will announce its support for the light rail soon and whether the University's concerns regarding the project remain. 

He responded in an email that the University is still working with GoTriangle to resolve issues.

"We are working with GoTriangle to address the university’s continuing concerns about aspects of the construction and operations of the light rail system that could compromise community health, research and patient safety at Duke," Schoenfeld wrote.

Christina Robinson, the opening speaker at the rally, said the light rail would connect Durham residents with job opportunities available throughout the Triangle.

“We all hope that Duke University will be on the right side of the history on this issue and help everyone prosper, and that they will join the train,” she said. “It is not only part of their mission as a private institution, but it is the right thing to do.”

She said that it would be “detrimental to many” if Duke did not agree to the deal.

Gulley also said that the University’s response to the project will affect Duke’s relationship with Durham.

“We want to Duke to take that path towards partnership, towards building together a community that we all love and want, that’s accessible to all people in Durham,” he said. “We don’t want the path taken that’s going to seriously damage the fabric of the public-private partnership we have, and I think set things back for Duke—a black eye if you will—for many more years to come.”

DeDreana Freeman, a member of Durham City Council, attended the rally to show her support for the project.

“I am here today in support of the light rail and making equitable solution that fits for both Duke University and Durham, and I really want to make sure that GoTriangle gets this right,” she said.