Duke University pumps brakes on Durham commuter rail system

 In April 2019

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It’s been 30 years since a commuter-rail system linking Chapel Hill, Duke University and Durham was conceived, so Duke’s decision in March effectively blocking the $2.4 billion project is a last-minute snag. “We had environmental hearings in 2015, and hundreds of people commented,” says Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. “Duke didn’t say a word.”

But Duke President Vincent Price says the university concluded that electromagnetic interference and vibrations from the electricity-powered trains could jeopardize care for 1.5 million patients a year at its medical center and hamper research at dozens of nearby medical labs. Duke officials noted that the rail line would run within less than 150 feet of “the most densely concentrated corridor of patient care and biomedical facilities in the state.”

Meanwhile, behind the standoff halting one of the state’s largest public-works projects are signs that more than technical concerns are involved. Duke accuses the Research Triangle Regional Public Transportation Authority, created by the legislature in 1989 and now called GoTriangle, of bad-faith negotiating and intransigence.

Local leaders viewed Duke as a principal beneficiary of the 18-mile, 19-stop line, which would tie the UNC Chapel Hill medical complex with Duke’s, plus hot spots in Durham such as Brightleaf Square, the historically African-American Hayti neighborhood and N.C. Central University. Construction was supposed to have begun in 2020 and be completed in 2028.

The spat’s implications are larger than the two big research universities, says Schewel, who is a Duke graduate. “This is the first critical backbone of a regional transit system” that would eventually link Durham and Chapel Hill with Research Triangle Park, Raleigh, Cary and other communities. “To lose this now would be a tremendous blow.”

Rerouting the line once would have been an option, but local and regional officials say the clock has run out. Placement was set by a federal environmental impact statement approved four years ago. “It could have been modified during the hearings, but Duke chose not to make any comments,” Schewel says. “Now, it’s this route or no route.”

About half, or roughly $1.2 billion, of the project funding would come from the Federal Transit Administration, pending approval by all parties before a looming April deadline. The state is set to provide $190 million.

The line has broad support in Durham’s African-American neighborhoods, with community leaders arguing it would provide transportation to jobs and spark new businesses.

Duke’s decision “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 the city needs,” Charlie Reece, a Durham City Council member, wrote on Twitter. Durham and other local governments would foot about a fourth of the bill, probably about $600 million.

“In the last 20 years, the ties between Duke and Durham have really strengthened,” Schewel says. “This is a really serious breach in what has been a wonderful town-gown relationship.”

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