‘Elitist’ Duke Kills Rail Project That Durham Spent 10 Years Planning

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

Duke University has pulled the rug out from under a $3.3-billion light rail project that residents of Durham had spent a decade planning and had agreed to support with a new tax.

On the precipice of an important federal deadline, Duke announced on Wednesday that it would not sign an agreement granting the 17.7-mile Durham-Orange light rail project access to land owned by the university. The decision blocks planners from applying for $1.2 billion in federal construction funding that they almost certainly would have gotten.

In a letter [PDF], University top brass blamed the decision on concerns about impacts of the light rail line to its hospital from electromagnetic and electronic interference and construction vibration.

But GoTriangle, the agency advancing the project, says the concerns are just the latest in a six-year laundry list from Duke that project leaders have addressed. For example, the GoTriangle had committed to a $90-million elevated track in order to ease the university’s concerns about electric power disruptions. In addition, the University wanted a $1-billion insurance policy to ensure that vibrations from passing trains did not affect research and diagnostic equipment. When GoTriangle complied, the University demanded a $2-billion insurance policy.

The announcement has sparked criticism of university leadership. Durham City Councilman Charlie Reece said university officials are out of touch with the needs of the community, especially lower-income residents.

Another City Councilman, Mark-Anthony Middleton, echoed the “elitist” rhetoric in a statement to the News Observer, and urged the city to use eminent domain to acquire the needed land.

“How can the very economic trajectory of our region be determined by one wealthy, private landowner?” he asked.

The decision seemed to be made primarily be three university executives: Duke President Vincent Price, Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III, and Health Affairs Chancellor Eugene Washington were the only signatories on the letter to GoTriangle.

Some University faculty and staff have been outspoken as well. The Faculty Union demanded that University leadership continue the project. Earlier this week, more than two dozen faculty and staff signed a letter urging the University to grant the project access.

Duke climate scientist Drew Shindell told Streetsblog on Wednesday that the decision flies in the face of the University’s stated concerns about climate change and about the health of the community.

GoTriangle estimated the project would support about 20,000 new jobs for the region and carry about 26,000 daily riders. It was to connect Duke University to Chapel Hill and the universities’ affiliated hospitals, which are among the fast-growing region’s largest employers. Voters approved a half-cent sales tax to support the project in 2012.

The community had been discussion how to develop affordable housing around the corridor. Starting the project over from scratch would delay it 10 to 15 years.

In a statement, GoTriangle said it would “work with the elected officials in Durham and Orange counties and the Federal Transit Administration to assess all available options and decide upon a course of action.”

The project had already survived several assassination attempts by the state legislature.

21 thoughts on ‘Elitist’ Duke Kills Rail Project That Durham Spent 10 Years Planning

  1. I hope that the councilman wanting the rail line put through using eminent domain helps win out–it’s time to see clean transit strong-arm property rights out of the way.

  2. PLEASE, PLEASE, DO NOT LOSE SIGHT OF the very real possibility that the Koch Brothers and others in their camp may very well have nefariously, and from under the table, convinced the Trustees and President of Duke University, to put a stop to this project. If any of you viewing these pages have not already done so, I urge you to read the New York Times report, released in 2018, which describes in considerable detail the lengths to which the Kochs and others (like the Freedom Foundation and Randal O’Toole have gone to, to throw monkey wrenches in light rail and other public transportation projects around the country. Here’s the link to this article: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/19/climate/koch-brothers-public-transit.html

  3. If we could only get at the genuine and FULL truth behind what has happened here, it would be, in my view, a remarkable accomplishment.

  4. there’s plenty of painfully-woke rationalizations against transit, as we’ve gotten from the long careers of Eric Mann, Damien Goodmon, and Michael Weinstein–gentrification! no, it hurts buses! no, it serves only whites! just don’t follow their money …

    they can always think of something, and it’s not a foe that transit activists (initially) expect

  5. The sorry outcome of this debacle over the Durham Light Rail was all-but-GUARANTEED from the very outset.

    It is pitiful to see how unable we are now as a country to do anything substantial and meaningful to combat climate change and un-clog our overburdened highways. We are sabotaging ourselves left and right, as the essential cancellation of the California High Speed Rail Project just last week by (DEMOCRATIC, no less) Governor Gavin Newsom, in one of his first acts after succeeding Governor Brown.

    The day is fast arriving, if it hasn’t already, when transportation planners nationwide are simply not going to propose major infrastructure projects of ANY kind, be they road, high-speed rail, or light rail. We are past the day when we can get anything done – and it’s very disheartening to me to have to face this most dismal of facts.

    Even the Purple Line in Maryland, near Washington, D.C., is very likely to be lawsuited to death, and although it’s currently under construction, the forces arrayed against it are working harder than ever now to scuttle it, too!

  6. however now LA has a pro-rail constituency (even if it’s being turned against itself by using HSR funding to rebuild Union Station without any HSR platforms)

    all the city councils, county boards, courts, the CPUC, etc., have gotten wise that the NIMBYs are astroturfers or cranks, not heads of big and active constituencies

  7. So if Duke University was such a big threat to the survival of the program, then perhaps a different route should have been chosen. If Duke wasn’t impacted then Duke wouldn’t have objected.

  8. in all things –
    killing public transit,
    basketball, and
    privileged douche bags not bright enough to get into an Ivy,
    Duke is the fucking worst.

  9. Duke University strung everyone along until the very last minute – seems to me everyone working with Duke was acting in good faith. It’s clear now that Duke never intended to play fair and square with anyone,

    I cannot but think that the Koch Brothers and their ilk got at the Duke Administration a long time ago, and got them to promise never to support this project – in exchange for what favors, I wonder?

  10. Did you miss the facts? DOLRT is in the middle of massive problems with route, costs and contingency. Duke is only one. Time is running out.

    The safety of Duke’s world renowned medical center is critical and GoTriangle has known about it for years. All in all, DOLRT is a poor project that wont help with congestion, emissions or anything else that a $4 billion should do.

    Here’s what the local news reported to counter the political spin.

  11. The hospital excuse sounds like BS. Many hospitals around the world are in close proximity to rail lines.

    The real reasons this project is in trouble are alluded to in the report linked by BonnieAHauser below: lack of community support and need. Rail will be built efficiently and effectively if developers’ and communities’ bottom lines depend on it. But Durham and Orange counties are mostly classic sprawlsville with car-dependent subdivisions continuing to mushroom and little prospect of dense redevelopment except in a few downtown locations. The vast majority of the counties’ housing and many of their workplaces cannot be served efficiently with transit.

    Until our governments, developers, and people become willing to end car-dependent sprawl and instead build very high-density housing and employment centers at rail stations–which IMO they should–projects like this one are doomed to remain political playthings with tepid community commitment and no incentives for cost control or efficiency.

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  13. There are light and heavy rail lines running next to, underneath and through hospital complexes all over the world with absolutely no problems or threats to patient safety. Why is Duke hospital any different?

    Also, they don’t seem to have any worries regarding patient safety when Duke itself is doing the construction. Why is that?

  14. I realize post isn’t intended to be journalism, but it is indicative of what I have been reading, and reporting on this issue has been so ridiculously one-sided. I’m not saying I agree with Duke’s decision, but there are a lot of people who are all for an effective and efficient mass transit system in the Triangle region, but who also believe the alignment as designed makes little sense. There is so much pressure on hitting a schedule, that GoTriangle won’t admit they haven’t even gotten to a design that works. Plus they are $275m over budget…at the very least. Charlie Reece is certainly not helping with his cry-baby tweets, either.

  15. There was plenty of community support. Durham and Orange County residents voted to increase sales tax to help fund the project. Durham county residents have consistently voted in officials who supported the light rail. NCCU and UNC supported the project. Duke did too, until a few months ago.

  16. “the safety of Duke’s world renowned medical center is critical”
    I don’t buy it. Here in NYC almost every major hospital and medical center has a subway and/or commuter train and/or a major highway running right next door, close by (within a couple 100 yards) or even directly underneath. They all manage to effectively isolate their operations from electro-magnetic interference and vibrations. Many of the major medical centers in Boston, another city that I’m familiar with, are similarly close to mass transit lines. We’re talking 19th century technology that can easily be mitigated with 21st century technology. I can’t weigh in on the other issues, but to use the safety of their facilities as even a partial excuse is bogus.

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