Light Rail Costs have run off the tracks

By Earl McKee of News and

When I joined the Board of County Commissioners six years ago the planning for the future of public transportation in Orange County was a topic of intense conversation.

Over the next couple of years we looked at a proposal that focused on a fixed rail system between two of the major universities in our area with a few extra stations in the city of Durham stopping just short of NCCU. At that time I objected to the exclusion of service to NCCU and the adjacent Durham Tech campus.

Although there were provisions for more bus hours, I felt that the dedication of $400 million from Durham and Orange counties for a (then) $1.6 BILLION light rail system would cripple expansion of local transportation systems which were far from adequate. From that point on I opposed the light rail component as well as a half-cent sales tax proposal to be placed on the ballot. I lost those arguments. The voters approved the sales tax increase, and I resigned myself to the reality that the transportation plan would be implemented with light rail as the centerpiece.

Imagine my surprise when notified on Nov. 11, only four days before an update from Go Triangle, that many of the things that I had warned about were in fact happening.

The financial plan for light rail is in a state of collapse, and only a huge infusion of additional county monies can save it. The details, as presented Nov. 15 and 17 by Go Triangle, include information that projected cost is now up to $1.87 BILLION; and the counties’ share up from 25 percent to 40 percent, which in this category alone represents a staggering $254 million increase in real dollars. Using their figures Orange and Durham counties are being asked to cover $175 million of this gap.

The presentations did not mention this funding gap until I specifically asked about it. Instead the focus was on a change to the way the federal funds are allocated.

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