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Union Tpke

Duke kills Light Rail in Durham

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I say use eminent domain, but as the CityLab article notes, there likely won't be enough time to get the federal money for the project. This is a complete disgrace.



Political leaders in one of the most progressive parts of the South have dreamed for two decades about an ambitious plan for a transit line connecting Durham, the home of Duke University, with nearby Chapel Hill. Funds were pledged and renderings were drawn.

But in recent days, Duke, which has labored to turn around its reputation as a privileged cloister, has brought the plan to a shrieking halt. It unilaterally rejected the proposed light-rail route, which would have cut across its property. And the resulting moral outrage has felt strong enough to power a train.

Representative G.K. Butterfield, a North Carolina Democrat, said he was “appalled” by the university’s decision. Wib Gulley, a former mayor of Durham, compared it to the moment when Duke called in the police “to gas and beat students” amid civil rights protests in 1969.

And Kevin Primus, a former manager of the Duke men’s basketball team, said the rejection of the light-rail plan justified the school’s reputation among African Americans like him, who still occasionally refer to it as “the plantation.”



The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project, or DOLRT, is a planned 17.7-mile line linking Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The plan is two decades in the making—born of an ambitious 1990s scheme to stitch the state’s booming Research Triangle region together via rail.

Since then, DOLRT has consumed more than $130 million in public money. In 2011 and 2012, voters in Durham and Orange counties approved half-cent sales taxes to fund transportation improvements, including the light rail, to better connect major employers like UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University, N.C. Central University, a VA hospital, and businesses in bustling downtown Durham. Construction of the estimated $2.7 billion project was to start next year; an application to the Federal Transit Administration was due this spring for federal funding of $1.25 billion. The state agreed to contribute $190 million.

But all this came to a screeching halt on February 27, when Duke University officials said they would not sign a cooperative agreement. (The project required 11 partners to ink cooperative agreements; only Duke, Norfolk Southern, and the North Carolina Railroad Company, which manages a major rail corridor, remain unsigned.) A week later, Duke declined a request to participate in a mediated negotiation with GoTriangle, the region’s transportation authority.

Duke’s bombshell is likely to spell the end of the line for the project. GoTriangle officials are trying to figure out next steps, but there’s no easy path forward. For city and county officials who have made light rail the centerpiece of the region’s planning, the university’s decision has been greeted with shock, dismay, and fury.

“We need this for the quality of life for our region. If we don’t have it, it’s a tremendous blow,” Durham Mayor Steve Schewel told CityLab.  “We either get this, or we are back at square one.”

Schewel said all options remain on the table, including using eminent domain to acquire Duke property. But the mayor acknowledged that the process is unlikely to be successful, given deadlines imposed by the state. It could also lead to a lengthy legal battle.

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