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Amid unclear future, report says Durham light rail project still eligible for federal funding

March 20, 2019
A rendering of a the proposed Durham light rail project.
A rendering of a the proposed Durham light rail project.

The Durham-Orange light rail project appears to have met a minimum threshold to remain eligible for funding from federal transit officials, according to a new report released last week.

But ratings on factors like financial commitments and cost estimates for the project, assessed by the Federal Transit Administration in November 2018, came months before Duke University backed away from the light rail route over concerns about patient safety.

The FTA’s findings were first reported by The News & Observer Tuesday.

The 16-page annual report from the FTA details projects across the country up for funding through the federal Capital Investment Grants Program. By law, projects have to earn a “medium” or better on a five-point rating scale to stay eligible for the funding.

But the report points out that ratings “are point in time evaluations by FTA and may change as proposed projects proceed through planning and design.”

The Durham-Orange Light Rail project earned a “medium” overall rating, keeping it eligible for $1.24 billion in federal funding. That amounts to about half its total capital costs.

The project’s rating puts it behind three other projects in its funding category. The projects, located in California and Minneapolis, all earned medium-high ratings.

Although it earned a medium rating overall in the project justification category, the Durham-Orange light rail proposal ranked low in cost effectiveness. It also scored slightly lower than its peers on commitment of funds, part of its medium rating for local financial commitments.

The report notes that “ratings included in this annual report should not be construed as statements about the ultimate success or failure of those projects.”

“Rather, the ratings provide assessments of the projects’ strengths and weaknesses at the point in time when they were rated,” the report reads.

A more detailed profile of the Durham-Orange light rail project, updated by the FTA in March, does not note that the 17.8-mile proposal appears to be on shaky ground, given the recent withdrawal of support from Duke University. University officials have expressed concern about the potential for electromagnetic waves and vibrations to interfere with patient safety at its medical facilities.

Duke officials pulled out of negotiations with GoTriangle after they said the transit authority “ignored, minimized or redirected” the university’s concerns.

Durham City Councilman Mark-Anthony Middleton said the use of eminent domain may be on the table. That would increase costs for the project, which as originally proposed would have used land donated outright by Duke.

“I don’t know if it’s a good idea, but I think it’s an inevitable idea. It’s a discussion that we have to have as a government,” Middleton said. “It’s not that we want to use eminent domain and we’re not looking to be at war or pick a fight with Duke. But there’s a government integrity issue at stake.”

The FTA report ranks the project’s “reasonableness of capital and operating cost estimates and planning assumptions” as medium-low, noting that its estimates for both capital costs and operating costs are “optimistic.”

It’s unclear exactly what those ratings mean for the project’s future – if they mean anything at all. The project ranked medium-low in a similar report released by the agency in early 2018, when federal assessors noted similar “optimistic” estimates.

A spokesperson with the Federal Transit Administration has not responded to a request for comment.

Mike Charbonneau, a spokesperson with GoTriangle, declined to comment Wednesday afternoon, saying the agency wouldn’t have anything to add publicly until its board of trustees meets on March 27.

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