Duke Climate Scientist Criticizes the University’s Light Rail Obstructionism

Light rail between Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina, is expected to draw 26,000 riders a day. Image: Triangle Transit
Light rail between Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina, is expected to draw 26,000 riders a day. Image: Triangle Transit

Scores of Duke University faculty members are demanding that the institution abandon its threat to kill a 17-mile light rail line linking UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, downtown Durham and N.C. Central University

Duke’s Board of Trustees will vote on Thursday whether to allow construction of the $3.3-billion Durham-Orange light rail line to continue through campus. A negative vote would cause the long-planned project to miss a federal deadline, likely sinking it. This week, 51 faculty and staff members signed an open letter in the student newspaper, the Chronicle, demanding support for the transit project — especially given that the university claims it is committed to combatting climate change.

“The university has a plan to become carbon neutral and one of the areas that [need] the most progress is transportation, with all the employees driving to work,” Earth Sciences Professor Drew Shindell, one of the letter signers, told Streetsblog. “This is a way to really tackle the problem.”

The News Observer chronicled Duke’s long, evolving list of mostly petty objections to the 17.7-mile light rail project. The paper noted that Duke has put “one hurdle after another in the path of light rail,” including concerns about traffic, alleged tree damage and even protecting views of an on-campus golf course.

Drew Shindell, earth sciences professor at Duke University. Photo: Duke
Drew Shindell, earth sciences professor at Duke University. Photo: Duke

Project leaders from the light rail agency GoTriangle say they have worked hard to meet the university half way. For example, to quiet concerns Duke officials had about electric power connections with Duke Medical Center, GoTriangle added a $90-million elevated portion for the light rail.

But despite regional planning meetings going to 2015, Duke President Vincent Price told the News Observer that he had too many concerns to move forward. University officials claim construction and operation of the light rail line will cause vibrations that will impair operations at Duke Medical Center.

The University wanted a $1 billion insurance policy against that possibility. Now, they university is asking for a $2 billion insurance policy against light rail vibrations interfering with hospital operations.

Duke’s Public Affairs office did not respond to Streetsblog’s request for comment.

Shindell, whose research focuses on the air quality and climate impacts of power generation and transportation decisions, said he doesn’t have any inside information about why the university is impeding the project. But he thinks University leadership is intensely focused on the everyday minutia of managing various facilities.

“Their job is not to pay attention to the big picture,” Shindell said. “Duke says they care about the community and says they care about the environment and yet they throw out all these road blocks at the last minute to something everyone in the community says they want.

“It would be a hugely beneficial thing to our whole region,” he added. “People are constantly locked in traffic jams on I-40 and it’s just going to get worse all the time.”

  • University of Maryland, University of Southern California, and Princeton have also worked their hardest to derail major transit projects.

  • Guest

    Vibrations interfering with a hospital? There are dozens of medical centers with train access. MetroLink in St. Louis is tunneled under Barnes Jewish Hospital and St. Louis Children’s Hospital which are all a part of the larger Washington University Medical Center and their school of medicine. It’s one of the largest hospital complexes in America and the LRT station in the middle of it is the busiest on the system. Washington University, St. Louis University, University of Missouri-St. Louis, SWIC, the College of Pharmacy (BJC campus) have all taken an active role in introducing rail transit to their campuses, with great success. I’d expect similar things from a school like Duke, but I guess not.

  • Max Wyss

    Makes me wonder if, and how much, money is flowing in from Koch Industries and Co.…

  • iBikeCommute

    University of Colorado hospital was successful in preventing the A line train from coming near their campus due to vibration concerns.

  • Daniel

    and they’re chockfull of thinkers who can rationalize NIMBY in the wokest of language–it’s about preventing gentrification, you see, transit doesn’t guarantee access, etc.

  • James

    When I lived in Germany every medical facility and hospital I visited was right next to rail transit of some sort including S-Bahn rapid commuter rail. Imagine if one were to look at major cities worldwide you’d find that hospitals tend to be near rail transit.

  • jbssfelix

    It’s even normal in other parts of the US. In Denver, Colorado’s largest medical campus (CU Hospital, Colorado Children’s, VA Hospital, etc) are directly across the street from a commuter rail station.

  • jbssfelix

    The A line was blocked, but the R Line runs right next to it.

  • JerryG

    Neither one of you are correct. The A-Line was never designed to connect directly to the Anchutz Medical Center. However, the R-Line was originally laid out to travel through the medical center but the University of Colorado was successful in having the line moved so that it runs next to and around the Anchutz Medical Center.

  • Eric Talbot

    Duke’s arguments are, basically, “gas-lighting” us as to their true thinking, and who the REAL actors are who are feeding us this dubious set of rationales. I would be ASTOUNDED if the KOCH BROTHERS had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with this decision to scuttle the entire project (to expect that to be true would be tantamount to expecting the sun to rise in the West and set in the East..

  • sixranges

    Light and heavy rail networks will often have a station named “hospital.”

  • Stephen Edwards

    I support rail and am a native of this region, but this proposed rail line with 16+ stops along 17 miles would take over 1.5 hours from end to end. You could make 4 round trips driving in that amount of time. They need a fast, direct line with 5 stops maximum If they want the public to ever use it. The current proposal is a lesson in how NOT to design a successful rail line.

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