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Detail of a portion of planned light rail project that passes through Duke University


A two-decade effort to bring a transit line to Durham, N.C., hit a possibly fatal stumbling block last month when Duke University effectively backed out of a $3.3 billion light rail project.

The university said it wasn’t ready to sign a cooperative agreement with the Research Triangle Regional Public Transportation Authority, popularly known as GoTriangle, that would allow the project to move forward and qualify for billions in state and federal funding. After local officials requested that the sides agree to mediation to settle disputes around the project, Duke said flatly on Thursday that it saw no reason to proceed. The planned route, it said, is "simply not workable."

The university's stance, local officials said, will likely doom the effort, at least for now.

Duke's move has brought a high-stakes town-gown dispute to a head and inflamed tensions -- an editorial in The News & Observer of Raleigh suggested that local officials simply use eminent domain to take the small strip of Duke land needed for the project, suggesting it's the only option Duke has left available for a "community it abandoned."

The planned 17.7-mile route would have linked the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with Duke, downtown Durham and North Carolina Central University. The plan required Duke to donate about four blocks of land along a major street, but the private university said the project still had to overcome several long-standing safety and health obstacles before officials would sign off. It also said it hadn’t been able to complete extensive reviews under tight deadlines for state and federal grants.

The proposed line would run near Duke Hospital and the Duke Eye Center, among other medical and research facilities, and would require excavating “at least nine 40-foot deep holes” in a nearby street, Duke president Vincent Price and other officials wrote to GoTriangle. The excavation work, which would take several years, “is far beyond the acceptable levels we impose on any public or private construction project in the vicinity of our hospital and clinics,” they said. The project’s long construction process would also disrupt utilities, another unacceptable risk for hospitals.

The rail line itself would present dangers to the medical facilities because vibrations from trains would impede delicate surgeries that are performed around the clock, they said. And electromagnetic interference, or EMI, could wreak havoc on “current and future patient care and research devices.”

Electric subway and light rail trains run adjacent to and underneath hospitals and research facilities in big cities nationwide, of course, but in this case the EMI issue has led to dueling scientific claims from the two sides: Duke says the light rail system presents "catastrophic and potentially fatal" risks, while GoTriangle says it would have at best a "moderate" impact on just a few locations, with most feeling no impact at all.

Duke also said questions around liability remain unresolved: Price and his colleagues said that as a private institution, Duke doesn’t have “sovereign immunity” like the government partners and likely would be solely liable for damages during construction -- or for passenger accidents along the route. They said the partners have been unable to agree on sufficient insurance coverage for Duke’s liability.

Durham mayor Steve Schewel told WRAL that Duke's decision was a "body blow to the light rail and to our community." City councilor Charlie Reece tweeted that Duke's decision "sadly reinforces the worst fears of many Durham residents -- that Duke University is an arrogant and elitist enclave with little interest in being the kind of partner this city needs."

The news comes as local planners say populations in the region are booming. A January report by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Metropolitan Planning Organization found that the area around the three cities is expected to grow to 640,000 people by 2045 -- in 2013, it was home to about 430,000 people. The consequence all that growth, the groups said, has been "rising traffic congestion, increasing transportation infrastructure costs and further pressure on our air, water, open space and other environmental assets." The light rail line is expected to accommodate more than 26,000 trips daily.

The planning groups said the region's quality of life, "a key attraction for professional and skilled workers and business investment to our region," may ultimately be threatened by both growth and "inadequate transportation infrastructure."

An Extended Deadline

Gary Stewart, a board member of the International Town & Gown Association, said reliable transportation systems are "a needed staple in every college town," but that getting them often takes years of cooperative planning, "hard work, joint strategies and budget decisions."

A spokesman for Cornell University, Stewart noted that the region's bus system, though less complex than light rail, "was still a long haul over many years to develop and maintain. Gratefully today, it’s growing and successful."

Several area legislators last week said they hope Duke will reconsider its decision on the project, which has already cost the transportation authority more than $130 million, The News & Observer reported. The partners face an April 30 deadline to apply for a $1.23 billion federal transit grant. They must get federal approval by Nov. 30 in order to meet a state deadline for another $190 million in funding. But without Duke’s cooperation, it’s not immediately clear how the project will continue.

Since last week, the Duke Faculty Union, which represents non-tenure-track faculty members, has also urged the university to support the project, saying in a statement that the proposed light rail service would help improve transportation “for the most marginalized members of society.”

The group said the service would "bolster our green infrastructure and improve access to medical facilities, schools and shopping centers for as many residents as possible, especially those without personal vehicles." The union represents more than 250 contingent faculty members, who would be more likely to take mass transit to work. It has operated since 2015 and prioritizes efforts that "promote racial justice and defend workers’ rights" in the Research Triangle region. The union said Duke's contributions to Durham’s economic and social growth "are unquestioned if not uncomplicated," and that the project gives Duke a chance to "join with other local civil and academic leaders to collaborate in the great work of moving the Triangle forward."

Price last November told GoTriangle that Duke is committed to the project and to mass transit -- he said that over the past five years, the university has spent almost $5 million on local and regional transit passes for employees, students and the community. But he said "numerous and quite significant problems remain unresolved" about the rail project. He noted that Duke has had basically the same complaint about the route's proximity to the hospitals for nearly two decades.

"The potential risks of certain aspects of the proposed route to the health, safety and economic well-being of the community and the university are simply, at this point, too great," he wrote. "We deeply wish it were otherwise, and that after decades of planning we were not left in this unfortunate position now, as external deadlines for project financing force us into risky public decision making."

In a letter to campus, Price said he was aware that Duke’s position is unpopular and “has caused some to question our commitment to Durham, which pains me greatly.” But he said the university had been asked to make “financial, land and other commitments that would have required taking unacceptable risks to the safety of our patients and the public, and the continued viability of our research and health enterprises.” Meeting the project’s tight deadlines, he said, “would have abdicated Duke’s responsibility, and my personal responsibility as president, to act prudently in our institutional and public interest.”

Price said Duke remains committed to the creation of a “comprehensive regional transit network” that uses “all modes of transportation and new technologies.”

Durham city councilman Mark-Anthony Middleton on March 4 suggested using eminent domain to take the needed four blocks from Duke, telling WRAL, “I don’t know if it’s a good idea, but I think it’s an inevitable idea. It’s a discussion that we have to have as a government.” He said the city doesn’t want to pick a fight with the powerful university, but that scuttling the project raises government integrity issues.

Seizing Duke’s land, he said, is “not a pleasant experience. But, respectfully -- as a city, we are not applying for admission to grad school. We’re trying to make public policy.”

In an interview, Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld said the issue is clear: “We have indicated over the last 20 years that the current route … was not feasible and not acceptable. And we have indicated a strong willingness to support this project if the route can be changed.”

A former Durham mayor, Wib Gulley, who now works with the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit, a local nonprofit, said the college's rhetoric is misleading, since the project has indeed changed radically from 20 years ago, when it was envisioned as a diesel train line to Durham from Raleigh, not Chapel Hill. The current project is “completely different” from what came 20 years earlier. Actually, he said, the partners proposed the cleaner electric light rail train “in some part to fundamentally meet Duke’s objection” to earlier iterations.

Gulley, who is also a former six-term state senator, said the notion that Duke has consistently sought a new light rail route “is, frankly, deliberately misleading -- they know it’s wrong.”

He also noted that when the current project underwent environmental impact hearings, about two years ago, Duke “didn't say a thing -- they didn’t raise a thing.”

“To me, they’re just trying to make up excuses at this point,” he said. “That is a level of hypocrisy that stuns you.”

On March 5, GoTriangle said it would give Duke an extension of up to six weeks to make a decision. Schoenfeld declined to comment on the offer.

In the Feb. 28 editorial, the News & Observer complained that Duke's last-minute objection to the project has "denied GoTriangle adequate time to respond. It’s bad faith on Duke’s part to raise a major and perhaps project-ending objection just as federal funding is about to fall into place."

The newspaper said Duke's safety objections ring hollow, since many of its concerns are "largely hypothetical and, to the extent that they are legitimate, can be addressed." Medical centers in Chicago, Boston, New York and Philadelphia, among other cities, function safely "despite rumbling trains and subways and major construction projects -- sometimes their own -- nearby," the newspaper wrote. "This isn’t about patient safety. It’s about a rich private university that doesn’t want its harvest of health-care dollars inconvenienced by a major improvement in the region’s infrastructure."

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