Who does LRT railroad?

We saw on Nov. 8 the depth of the frustration of white working-class voters. Many feel Nancy Oatesleft out of the nation’s economic recovery and are fed up with subsidizing the lifestyle of the upwardly mobile. What lessons did Orange County commissioners learn from the recent national election? We’ll see perhaps as early as Dec. 5, when commissioners are expected to vote on whether to move forward to the next phase of work and expenditures for the proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit.

At the Nov. 17 Assembly of Governments meeting, GoTriangle pleaded its case to move to the engineering phase of the rail line that will connect UNC to Duke and cost at least $1.8 billion. GoTriangle’s latest plan extends the 17-mile line an extra three-fifths of a mile to include a stop at N.C. Central University, a smart move, given how much that could potentially increase ridership. Durham Tech is about a mile and a half farther out. GoTriangle’s website does not show the cost of the extension.

Cost was the main focus of GoTriangle’s presentation last Thursday, because the state initially had committed to pay 25% of the cost but now has capped its contribution at 10%. That creates a $240 million funding gap. And the federal government, still willing to reimburse GoTriangle for half the cost, has slowed its rate of reimbursement from $125 million annually to $100 million, which means the county will have to carry more debt longer.

To fill these gaps, Orange County is being asked to kick in $4 million a year, and Durham $13.4 million, to make up the shortfall. Since the ½-cent sales tax hike that Orange voters approved for transit contributes about $5 million a year, the changes nearly double Orange County’s financial commitment to light rail.

GoTriangle rummaged under the couch cushions to make up the shortfall. It formed a consortium of developers and politicians to get money from universities and other places. GoTriangle also is asking the MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization) to contribute an extra $2 million a year. That money would have to be reallocated from plans for it to be spent on things like parks and greenways, bike and pedestrian improvements, and bridges and roadways.

Even so, we are looking at a tax increase county-wide, including folks in rural part sof the county who live on a tight budget and likely wouldn’t use light rail. The tax increase, along with expected increases from the new school and housing bonds, and solid waste and other fees, would increase property tax bills about 10%.

All of this to save 17,000 car trips a day, about the same increase in traffic that Obey Creek (now South Creek) will bring, a number that council members at the time shrugged off in approving development at Obey Creek.

Bus Rapid Transit could provide the same solution for a much lower price — 20 miles of BRT would cost less than $350 million. And if electric buses were used, it would offer a clean energy option as well.

But buses don’t have the cachet of a train, and likely would be less effective in luring well-paid hospital and university commuters out of their cars. Instead, we expect rural residents to pay for the lifestyle amenities of a select few urbanites. No wonder the working class rose up with such vengeance during this last election.
— Nancy Oates

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58 Comments

  1. Nancy

     /  December 5, 2016

    DOLRT would not “lose its place in line” or “move to the bottom of the list.” GoTriangle explained at the Assembly of Governments meeting last month that not moving forward with the engineering phase by the end of December would delay the project by a year.

    Given that no affordable housing would be built in Orange County, because the land around the stations are either owned by UNC or fully built out, we have the opportunity to negotiate with Durham to require affordable housing at the Durham stops. But by signing the letter of intent, OC commissioners waive their ability to negotiate with any teeth. Why would elected officials do this to their constituents, unless the commissioners are concerned only about maximizing profits of the developers who fund their re-election campaigns or want to turn our area into an exclusive address for the elite and can boost their own self-image?

  2. Absolutely support regional transit which is why I’ve come to believe the DOLRT is a total misfire.

    I was one of those RTP commuters – decades driving back and forth to the Park – who would’ve been happy to leave the car at home. DOLRT does zip to improve that. Due to my location and working hours, TTA would’ve added about 2+ hours to my day so a regional solution has to do better than that.

    I love working in (near) Downtown Durham and welcome a transit solution that gets me from Chapel Hill to Durham in a reasonable amount of time for an affordable fare. DOLRT, again, will do zip to help that.

    The DOLRT is an extremely costly inflexible transit solution for regional access. The only “success” it will bring is spurring and subsidizing high priced housing along its length leaving those UNC and RTP workers out in the cold.

  3. Terri

     /  December 5, 2016

    “by signing the letter of intent, OC commissioners waive their ability to negotiate with any teeth.” Nancy–what you are saying is the exact opposite of what I am being told by the commissioners and others who have been working on this project for several years.

    Will–glad to know you support regional transit.

  4. Plurimus

     /  December 5, 2016

    How does DOLRT equal regional transit? The only way DOLRT qualifies for regional transit dollars is by virtue of crossing a county line. DOLRT s anti-regional transit because it spend so much of the limited public transit funds on [yet another] economic development pland for Durham.

    DOLRT has *nothing* to do with regional transit.

  5. Nancy

     /  December 5, 2016

    Terri — The commissioners who would have you believe that they are not giving up their ability to negotiate are not being fully transparent. Signing the letter of intent does not prevent them from negotiating, but it prevents them from negotiating effectively. For instance, you wouldn’t walk into a car dealership and say, “I love this car, and I have $30K I’m planning to spend on it. How much does this cost?” By tipping your hand to what you are willing to spend, you have lost your leverage to negotiate buying for less. That’s what signing the letter of intent will do.

  6. Plurimus

     /  December 5, 2016

    Nancy, it’s more like saying I have 30K to spend, another 50K in the bank……and a rich benefactor.

  7. Here are three future predicted “sunk cost” claims:

    1) We have to continue DOLRT in-spite of a Federal funding gap because the BOCC clearly expressed its intent to fund the gap in its quick, unexplored signoff of the 2016 letter of intent. The BOCC signaled its willingness to finance the gap at $X million a year so it surely will be willing to accommodate a little more at $X+?? M a year.

    2) The BOCC clearly authorized the expenditure of $Y million doing engineering studies of the plan with their signoff of 2016. We can’t waste that money by changing course or consider alternatives. We must continue with the $2+ B in new expenditures.

    3) We already spent so much time, effort and money at the local, MPO and State levels that we must stay the original course. 2016’s BOCC was clearly unconcerned about material changes in the existing agreement, refused to review them, so any subsequent changes in the underpinnings of this agreement are irrelevant.

  8. Plurimus

     /  December 5, 2016

    The MoU is posted here: http://www.orangecountync.gov/document_center/BOCCAgendaMinutes/161205.pdf

    The MoU does not expressly prohibit the suspension of further spending until complete funding is secured.

    The MoU does not require an independent cost/benefit review and uncovering additional potential overruns in light of the Material Changes.

    Signing the MoU would give up the ability to negotiate the above and anything else (such as affordable housing) without ALL parties agreeing.

    Signing the MoU gives up a lot of negotiating room.

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