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Durham/Chapel Hill light rail funding addressed in budget fix

Posted June 13, 2018 10:47 a.m. EDT
Updated June 13, 2018 8:59 p.m. EDT

— Legislation that might have doomed plans for a light rail project connecting Durham to Chapel Hill gets an overhaul in a bill the Senate passed on Wednesday, giving the project a chance but also putting a hard deadline on hopes for state funding.

Instead of denying state money without upfront promises that were unlikely to come from the federal government, which is what the state budget initially did, the new language gives the project until the end of next April to secure about $100 million in needed private funding for the $2.4 billion line.

GoTriangle then has until the end of November 2019 to secure about $1.2 billion in federal funding.

Miss that window and not only does the state's contribution, which would be capped at $190 million, be lost, the project would be removed from any future state transportation plans, according to Senate Bill 335, the annual "budget technical corrections" legislation.

"I would say that it gives us a very narrow needle to thread," Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, said Wednesday. "It keeps the project moving ahead, but it's going to require a lot of hard work."

"It gives us a pretty good life line," said state Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham. "Not a lot of room for error."

Still, the change was welcomed by those worried over the near death of the project, which has already spent $88 million in local money on planning. Residents of Durham and Orange counties approved local sales taxes to help fund the project.

The budget technical corrections bill makes last-minute changes to the $23.9 billion budget bill that took effect Tuesday following the legislature's override of Gov. Roy Cooper's veto.

Previous language would have required GoTriangle to have the federal funding committed before the state's contribution could be counted on. Since state funding was needed to secure federal funding, that set up a Catch-22.

GoTriangle spokesman Mike Charbonneau certainly wasn't celebrating Wednesday's movement, though.

"We are aware of the new light-rail language in the technical correction bill, and GoTriangle staff is reviewing it carefully," Charbonneau said in an email. "For now, we will wait to see the final outcome of this bill before commenting on it."

McKissick said the new language grew out of vigorous negotiations since the original budget dropped, including a conference call with the Federal Transit Administration. The deadlines are based on dates GoTriangle considers reasonable, he said. With a project of this size and involving the federal government, though, that can always change.

"I'm optimistic that the deadlines can be obtained, but I would have preferred ... an extra six months or a year," McKissick said.

"It's going to make our local elected officials really work a lot harder with the GoTriangle team and with federal officials to the extent we've got any flexibility with this," Woodard said. "It's a very narrow window to pull this off, but this project has been fraught with these kind of challenges throughout. We keep persevering."