It’s Time to Stop, Look and Listen on Light Rail Project

dolrrouteMap of proposed light rail project that serves only a tiny corner of Orange County. The developable  land served by the light rail line is almost all in Durham County. Light Rail will steer investment away from Orange County, hurting our tax base and employment opportunities.

It’s time to stop, look and listen because Orange County’s bill for the light rail project connecting Duke with UNC hospitals has just doubled — resulting in increased property taxes — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Our County budget will be on the hook for cost overruns into the future putting our schools and social services at risk.

♦  On Monday, December 5th the Orange County Commissioners will meet in the Richard Whitted Building in Hillsborough to discuss the GoTriangle funding request.  If you wish to ask the Commissioners to delay any commitment to additional funding for this project until a proper cost benefit evaluation, scroll to the bottom of this article to sign the petition. ♦

GoTriangle has finally recognized that this regional transit authority will need more funding and that it’s not coming from the state of North Carolina. GoTriangle is asking Durham and Orange counties to makde up the difference!  For a start they are asking the Orange County Board of County Commissioners for an additional $40 million in funding, raising the local contribution from 25% to 40% of the overall project cost.

All this assumes that the state legislature grants full funding of 10% and that the project, which is only 30% engineered, will come in on budget- it’s aready gone up and they have not even started the design work.

In addition, GoTriangle has requested that an additional $20 million be diverted from sidewalk/greenway projects to the Light Rail project.

GoTriangle representatives explained that the increase in funding is intended to cover a $250 million funding gap created by a decrease in state contributions from 25% to “up to 10%”, as well as interest costs associated with a mismatch between the timing of funds from the Federal Transportation Authority and construction.

Unfortunately, missing from GoTriangle’s presentation was information about a number of other important financial factors which will, very likely, mean that the project cost (and Orange County’s share) will rise even further. These include:

  • Rising interest rates
  • Rising constriction labor costs
  • Uncertainties about federal contributions
  • Lower sales tax revenues than expected
  • Possibility of less than 10% state contribution
  • Amount of cost overruns the county must absorb

Note: Assuming the revised budget is $1.87B, then there is already an increase of $520M (+38%) over the earlier 2012 estimate of $1.35B … and they haven’t even finished designing the project!

See article by Tammy Grubb in Chapel Hill News, Orange, Durham asked to spend $175 milllion more for light transit and Commentary by Orange County Chairman Earl McKee,

Everyone wants better transit, and Orange County voters approved a local tax in 2015 for improved transit.  But the money raised is going overwhelmingly to funding light rail studies, while shortchanging investment in the practical public transportation that we need here in Orange County.

Why should County elected officials reevaluate the light rail project now?  The cost of the project may have exceeded any perceived benefit and would reduce funding for important Orange County priorities:

  1. A viable Chapel Hill transit system which better serves Chapel Hill and which can be expanded into rural areas where UNC workers live;
  2. Future funding for Bus Rapid Transit, sidewalks, and bikeways;
  3. Maintaining excellence in our public schools which have been hit hard by state cutbacks; and
  4. Moderating tax increases to keep living in Orange County affordable.

The County Commission have not said where they would find the funds for the additional funding for light rail, but most likely it would come from new property taxes –  estimated to rise by 10 cents if the carrying costs of the bonds just passed are factored in.

When we raise taxes we make it more and more difficult to make living in Orange County affordable. Taking on this heavy light rail commitment for the next ten years would squeeze our public school budgets just when the state has cut funding for public schools,  forcing our county to make up the difference with property tax revenue.

Before the Commissioners commit to any more County money they must:

  • Understand how the additional commitments would impact future Orange County school budgets and other priorities for housing, affordability and transportation.
  • Do an evaluation by an independent auditor of the figures GoTriangle presents, as well as the benefits and costs of the light rail project in the light of the cost increases.

♦    Sign the petition asking the County Commissioners to hit the “pause button”

You can send an individual emails to the Board members to reinforce concern and/or opposition to county dollars being spent on the Light Rail project here:

You can see all letters in the Commissioner public record here.


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