A rendering of Durham's proposed light rail
This train isn't going anywhere. Rendering by GoTriangle

After 20 years of planning, the North Carolina Research Triangle’s signature transit project is fighting for its life. Why did Duke University pull its support?

DURHAM, N.C.—The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project, or DOLRT, is a planned 17.7-mile line linking Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The plan is two decades in the making—born of an ambitious 1990s scheme to stitch the state’s booming Research Triangle region together via rail.

Since then, DOLRT has consumed more than $130 million in public money. In 2011 and 2012, voters in Durham and Orange counties approved half-cent sales taxes to fund transportation improvements, including the light rail, to better connect major employers like UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University, N.C. Central University, a VA hospital, and businesses in bustling downtown Durham. Construction of the estimated $2.7 billion project was to start next year; an application to the Federal Transit Administration was due this spring for federal funding of $1.25 billion. The state agreed to contribute $190 million.

But all this came to a screeching halt on February 27, when Duke University officials said they would not sign a cooperative agreement. (The project required 11 partners to ink cooperative agreements; only Duke, Norfolk Southern, and the North Carolina Railroad Company, which manages a major rail corridor, remain unsigned.) A week later, Duke declined a request to participate in a mediated negotiation with GoTriangle, the region’s transportation authority.

Duke’s bombshell is likely to spell the end of the line for the project. GoTriangle officials are trying to figure out next steps, but there’s no easy path forward. For city and county officials who have made light rail the centerpiece of the region’s planning, the university’s decision has been greeted with shock, dismay, and fury.

“We need this for the quality of life for our region. If we don’t have it, it’s a tremendous blow,” Durham Mayor Steve Schewel told CityLab.  “We either get this, or we are back at square one.”

Schewel said all options remain on the table, including using eminent domain to acquire Duke property. But the mayor acknowledged that the process is unlikely to be successful, given deadlines imposed by the state. It could also lead to a lengthy legal battle.

What happened?

In a letter to GoTriangle, Duke President Vincent Price and other officials cited issues with the light rail’s alignment along Erwin Road in Durham, which runs next to the university’s sprawling medical complex. Price expressed concerns that magnetic interference could hurt high-tech diagnostic and research equipment. Other issues included construction disruption that could affect a utility line, and vibrations from digging and placing the supports for an elevated track, and legal liability. In declining further talks, the Duke leaders said that the project’s route “poses significant and unacceptable risks to the safety of the nearly 1.5 million patients who receive care at our hospital and clinics each year, and the future viability of health care and research at Duke.”

The university, the statement said, “is simply unwilling to accept” a set of compromises from GoTriangle and “we do not see any value in entering into mediation.”

Wendy Jacobs, chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, called the university’s decision devastating, noting that Duke brought up these considerations far too late in the game. “It’s so significant for Duke to pull out at this point and raise the concerns that they have, because the time to have done that was before 2016,” Jacobs said. “It really makes you question what is going on here. I can’t answer that. I don’t understand.”

A Frequently Asked Questions document on Duke’s website said the university first opposed the Erwin Road route in 1999, linking to a story in the student newspaper that described comments made by former Duke President Nan Keohane. And in an email, Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, said Duke’s worries about the route were long standing. “Duke has studied and participated in this proposal for decades and has been consistent in its concern about placement of the line on Erwin Road in front of Duke Hospital and Clinics,” Schoenfeld said.

But in 2016, Duke officials signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding to cooperate with GoTriangle. Duke raised no issues about the route during the environmental impact comment period in 2015 and 2016.

A 20-page timeline from GoTriangle showed that a Duke official agreed to the Erwin Road route on the map during early talks. In meetings starting in 2013, Duke officials did begin to express concerns, including the location of a transit station and the loss of trees around a golf course. In 2016, the FTA issued a Record of Decision, which basically set the light rail route, including Erwin Road as a key segment of the corridor. Design and engineering began.

But then the tenor of discussions with Duke began to change, according to the GoTriangle timeline. “[C]oordination meetings with Duke began to reveal bizarre contradictions, complications, and a general dissatisfaction with the Light Rail alignment on Erwin Road,” the report said.

Duke also began to raise other issues, such as the potential danger to a utility line under the road and difficult access for emergency vehicles. By 2017, GoTriangle agreed to an expensive fix: elevating the train at Erwin Road to improve emergency access—a move preferred by the Duke administration that would add $90 million to the project’s cost.

It wasn’t until the end of 2017 that issues of noise, vibration, and electromagnetic interference were first brought up. GoTriangle asked Duke for a list of all sensitive equipment at the medical buildings to assess the situation; that information was only provided in January of this year. A GoTriangle consultant identified two electron microscopes and six MRI machines that could be vulnerable, according to a Feb. 19 memo from a GoTriangle project director, John Tallmadge. But officials said mitigation measures could be implemented.

Proponents of the light rail insist that many problems brought forth by Duke are technical and could still be resolved. GoTriangle has, for example, identified about 20 other medical centers that operate with rail systems nearby. As Streetsblog reports, facilities at the University of Minnesota and the University of Washington overcame issues related to nearby transit. Officials urged Duke to spell out their demands in a cooperative agreement, so that fixes would be assured.

But in summer 2018 new concerns arose, including security at a global research building and the prospect of traffic tie-ups around athletic events. In September, a Duke official asked if the route could be moved a block north, but GoTriangle officials explained that putting the line in the nearby historically African-American Crest Street neighborhood would both raise issues of environmental justice and could endanger federal funding. (That same neighborhood had been targeted for freeway construction in the 1970s, but survived with the help of activists and legal actions.)

First proposed in the 1990s, the light rail line connecting Durham with nearby Chapel Hill was designed to spur affordable housing in new developments along the route. (Courtesy of GoTriangle)

By the end of last year, a Duke official raised the concern that construction vibrations could affect delicate eye surgeries nearby. In February, Duke proposed that GoTriangle and the state of North Carolina indemnify Duke against any liability directly or indirectly related to the light rail project, and secure a $2 billion letter of credit for insurance.

“The terms of this language were unacceptable,” Tallmadge wrote in his February 19 memo.

The shifting concerns by Duke have angered local leaders and others who desperately want light rail in Durham. “If, in fact, this was insurmountable, we should not have been going forward and spending tens of millions of dollars in public funding. It’s just irresponsible,” Jacobs said about Duke. “It really raises the question of what was the intent all along. Was there no real commitment in the first place?”

Relations between Duke and Durham have been up and down through the years. Some in town have viewed the school as a wealthy institution that keeps itself apart from this working-class city built on tobacco. But the university is Durham’s largest employer, with 35,000 employees, and in recent decades it has improved its outreach. The Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership was founded in 1996 to assist 12 surrounding neighborhoods and nine nearby schools. Duke has also been a key investor in downtown Durham’s recent revitalization. Still, when Duke student activists took over the university’s administration building in 2016, the hashtag #DismantleDukePlantation became popular.

Congressman G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat whose district includes Durham, issued a statement saying he was appalled by the university’s rejection of light rail.. “Duke is jeopardizing the mobility options of thousands of its neighbors in Orange and Durham Counties, especially those in our most marginalized communities,” his statement said. “This decision really brings into question Duke’s commitment to be a true community partner.”

Charlie Reece, a Durham City Council member, was even more blunt in his tweet: “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.”

Critics of light rail, however, say that the school has done the city a favor by killing off the project, which which has been racking up costs and complications. (Some of those complications, of course, come from responding to Duke’s concerns.) Bonnie Hauser, a member of a group called Affordable Transit for All, said nearby Wake County has moved ahead of Durham and Orange with its strategy of high-frequency buses.

“For us, light rail has been the only solution and we have been willing to agree to anything to keep it going,” Hauser wrote in an opinion piece for The News & Observer. “A once simple light rail corridor has morphed into a clumsy roller-coaster with sharp curves, tunnels and elevated tracks as it has become evident that the light rail as originally planned was unworkable. It’s still ten years away.”

Local officials say there’s far more at stake than a single transportation project: A land-use plan approved in 2005 was designed around the future light rail stations. Like many other cities, Durham wants to use the train to spur affordable housing development.“The light rail is a transformational project for our region,” Schewel said. “This is so much of our planning, our affordable housing work...We’re talking about our region’s contribution to fighting climate change. We’re talking about affordable transportation to jobs. This is crucial. The light rail is the first critical backbone of a regional transit system.”

Ellen Reckhow, a Durham County commissioner and chair of the GoTriangle board, put it simply: “We have structured our community specifically to support this.”

Reckhow said the breakdown in negotiations may be due to new university leadership, who arrived after the light rail planning began. Price became president in 2017, and Dr. Eugene Washington became head of health affairs in 2015. “The change in leadership at both the medical center and at the university as a whole has hurt us,” Reckhow said. “Previous leaders certainly appeared to be much more supportive than current leadership.”

Officials were so worried about Duke’s wavering commitment that last August a group went to meet with Price. The ambassadors included Jacobs and Schewel, plus three former Durham mayors. Four in the group were Duke alumni—an indication of just how deeply Duke and Durham are intertwined.

In his letter last week, Price urged GoTriangle and area leaders to “seek common ground, to unite and not divide, and to activate the energy and spirit and creativity of a community in which we have all invested so much, for so long.”

That could be difficult.

With so much time and money gone, GoTriangle officials are now scrambling to find ways to salvage the project before an April 30 deadline. Besides the Duke impediment, there’s the issue of securing agreements with the railroads. Perhaps there’s a way for the line to skirt Duke property, Reckhow said. “We are looking at everything."

As with most things in the Triangle this time of year, the light rail controversy intersected with college basketball. Duke’s arch-rival in Chapel Hill, UNC, was an enthusiastic supporter of light rail and has already signed the cooperative agreement. When the Tar Heels beat the Blue Devils for the second time this season on Saturday, a familiar chant echoed after the UNC fight song: “Go to hell Duke!”

One transit supporter and Tar Heel fan, Gerry Cohen, fantasized on Twitter about future Duke teams riding the light rail to UNC’s arena. (He also skewered Duke, saying the train would even work in a blizzard—a reference to a 2014 UNC game that was postponed because the Duke team couldn’t travel 10 miles in a snowstorm.)

As the two teams clashed, Billy Ball, editor of N.C. Policy Watch, posted this message to Facebook, noting the potentially historic turning point that the light rail controversy represents: “A reminder that Durham, perhaps the only place left on Earth that didn’t hate Duke, now hates Duke.”

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