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'Emotions are a little raw right now': Officials respond to Duke not supporting the light rail, discuss path forward

Courtesy of GoTriangle
Courtesy of GoTriangle

Duke pumped the brakes on its support of Durham's light rail plans Wednesday when it informed transit authorities in a letter that it would not sign a cooperation agreement by the Thursday deadline.

After two decades of discussions, the plan appears to have stalled as it was coming up on critical funding junctures. 

Officials criticized the University for the decision as President Vincent Price sent an email to the Duke community Thursday explaining the reasoning and defending Duke's decision.

“While I know that the course of this particular project has caused some to question our commitment to Durham, which pains me greatly, my pledge to serve our community has never been stronger and will only grow,” Price wrote.

The light rail project would be a 17.7-mile track connecting North Carolina Central University, Duke and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The current plan for the route would require Duke to cede land; the University was one out of a dozen community partners asked to sign a cooperation agreement by Feb. 28. 

Duke joined North Carolina Railroad in not committing, according to a WRAL report. 

But Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow explained Thursday evening that the railroad's letter was different, because it committed to continuing discussions on the subject and indicated that their concerns could be resolved. 

“The impact of the rail letter is somewhat different," Reckhow said. "We didn’t view it as a showstopper."

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, said that Duke's decision to not sign onto the project was directly related to concerns about the effects of its Erwin Road location on the health system.

“This question is about the feasibility, advisability and very real risk to patient safety of running an electric train line 150 feet from the densest corridor of clinical and biomedical research facilities in the state of North Carolina," he said. 

Duke's rejection is not the only new hurdle the project faces. According to WRAL, the Federal Transit Authority has told GoTriangle that the project's budget should be upped by another $237 million.

“I think there are a number of factors that need to be examined regarding the viability of the light rail project," Schoenfeld said. "Duke is certainly one of them, but there are others as well.” 

'Staggering betrayal'

Charlie Reece, member of Durham City Council, took to Twitter to lambast the University's decision. 

"Duke University is the wealthiest institution in this city, and as such they have a moral obligation to be a good faith partner with the city of Durham in solving our community’s biggest problems," he wrote on Wednesday. "Today’s decision by Duke to refuse to sign a cooperative agreement for the light rail project is a staggering betrayal of that moral obligation."

Reece went on to point out a contrast between the decision and Duke's other points of contact with the city.

"These actions are in stark contrast to Duke’s otherwise generous support of the city’s efforts in other areas, including our work to create and preserve affordable homes for low income families," the councilman wrote. "Duke’s decision to kill the light rail project sadly reinforces the worst fears of many Durham residents—that Duke University is an arrogant and elitist enclave with little interest in being the kind of partner this city needs."

Reckhow said that she had been "cautiously optimistic" about Duke backing the plan, but that there had been a level of concern considering Duke's comments in recent months. 

As for how it would affect Duke and Durham's relationship, she emphasized how long the project has been in the works. 

“I think emotions are a little raw right now," Reckhow said. "You have to understand that this is a project we have been planning for two decades, and we actually linked our comprehensive land use plan to transit.”

Because of that link, the commissioner said, the denial's impact stretches beyond transit initiatives. 

“The land use plan has focused on layering in housing and jobs at the transit stations. We now have a land use plan that is—to some degree, if we don’t move forward—up-ended, and we need to revisit all our assumptions about growth and development in the community," she said. “This is more than just losing a transit project, because it affects a lot of other decision-making in the community.”

Schoenfeld stressed that Duke's relationship with Durham has lasted for more than a century and said that the University was "consistent in communicating its concerns" about the project for the last 20 years. 

“We know this is a very intense issue for a lot of people," he said. "It is unfortunate that it has called into question the many significant and deeply rooted ways that Duke University contributes to Durham. We are always looking forward to how we can continue to enhance that engagement.”

Two decades ago to the month, Duke's administrators balked at rail plans for the Triangle too, according to a Chronicle article from February 1999. They specifically cited concerns about Erwin Road. 

"We don't want anything that would disturb our patients or the neighborhood around the Hospital, and we believe that this is possible," then-University spokesman Al Rossiter said.

An internal memo from GoTriangle brought to light by the Durham Herald-Sun earlier this week raised questions about the timeline of Duke's participation in talks. 

The University cited four specific issues in its Wednesday letter—vibrations from construction, electromagnetic interference from the train, continuous access to electric power and liability for incidents that stem from any of those concerns.

Congressman G.K. Butterfield issued a statement on the University's decision, saying that he was "appalled" by the decision to prevent the project. 

“Duke’s decision not to sign the cooperative agreement with GoTriangle leaves the University as the determinative entity that will prevent a transformative transit project in a rapidly growing culturally diverse region from going forward...This decision really brings into question Duke’s commitment to be a true community partner. Duke has historically been good for Durham and, most certainly, Durham has been good for Duke," Butterfield stated. "This relationship now appears to be fractured, which is very unfortunate."

The congressman encouraged local authorities to take the necessary steps to keep the train project on track.

“I strongly urge all local officials and GoTriangle to use all options available to move this project forward," he stated. "I call on Duke University to quickly reconsider its decision and to think very hard about how it wants to be viewed in the Durham community in the years to come."

Path forward

One of the ideas recently floated publicly by Mark Anthony Middleton, member of Durham City Council, was to seize the University's land needed for the project using eminent domain. Eminent domain entails a government or its agent expropriating private property for public use, with payment of compensation.

How seriously that is being considered, however, is not completely clear. 

Mayor Steve Schewel told the Durham Herald Sun Thursday that GoTriangle was considering the option.

“The GoTriangle board of directors is looking at all of its options, including eminent domain, as I have informed President Price of Duke," he told the Herald-Sun.

However, Reckhow said that eminent domain was not currently a serious consideration. 

“It is not. We are looking at other approaches, we are talking to the [Federal Transit Authority] about options," she said Thursday night. "Eminent domain we treat as a last resort, so it’s not being actively discussed at this point.”

Other options include not seeking out a cooperative agreement from Duke if it is not giving land and minimizing contact with Duke generally, Reckhow explained.

Schoenfeld declined to comment on whether eminent domain was under discussion. 

Another option could have been to modify the light rail's route. The ability to drastically change the route ended, however, when the Environmental Impact Study was finalized in 2016. 

Although the University raised concerns at some points, Reckhow said that she thought those issues had been mitigated when a $90 million change was worked into the plan for the stretch of the rail on Erwin Road due to concerns from Duke. 

“This is a setback because the lack of a Duke property donation is a swing for us. We were counting on Duke’s support, because they were such a major partner and player all along the way in this project," Reckhow said. "I’ll be honest, I view it as a breach of faith with the Durham community." 

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