Setback for $3bn North Carolina railway as university won’t cooperate

A $3bn light rail project in North Carolina has hit a "major setback" after a university on the route declined to approve its construction.

Duke University is worried about disruption to its medical facilities near the proposed 28km route in the "Research Triangle" area between Durham and Chapel Hill, which is home to Duke and two other universities.

The company behind the venture, GoTriangle, issued a statement at the end of last week saying it had received a letter from Duke University saying it would not sign an essential co-operation agreement.

The mayor of Durham called it "a terrible blow".

Doubts about the scheme have also been raised by the North Carolina Railroad Company (NCRR), which owns the transport corridor.

GoTriangle’s statement said: "For more than a decade, and more intensely over the past year, GoTriangle and local elected officials have worked closely with the university to address concerns so Duke’s action today is especially disappointing.

"This is a major setback for the Durham and Orange county communities and the entire Triangle region. GoTriangle will work with the elected officials in Durham and Orange counties and the Federal Transit Administration to assess all available options and decide upon a course of action."

The university objected to the plan because it had medical facilities near the proposed route, and was concerned about the possibility of interference from electromagnetic radiation and vibration from excavation work, as well as the possibility of power outages and other accidents.

Vincent Price, the president of Duke, said in the letter that the university was being 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", and that "to do so under the imposed deadline would have abdicated Duke’s responsibility, and my personal responsibility as president, to act prudently in our institutional and public interest".

Steve Schewel, mayor of Durham, responded to the university’s decision by saying GoTriangle would "do what it must" to obtain necessary rights of way.

He said in a letter to a constituent: "Duke’s decision not to sign the cooperative agreement is a terrible blow to this project and our community. The GoTriangle board of directors is looking at all of its options, including eminent domain, as I have informed President Price of Duke."

Another difficulty with GoTriangle’s plans was also raised by Michael Walters, chairman of the North Carolina Railroad Company (NCRR), which owns the transport corridor that the light rail will be using. Last week the company wrote to GoTriangle to express doubts about its technical specifications for the project.

Walters said in the letter: "As with previous plans, the current GoTriangle plan proposes ‘fitting’ a double track, electrified light rail system along the NCRR corridor, locating the proposed light rail system adjacent and parallel to the main line NCRR railroad that is operated, maintained, and dispatched by Norfolk Southern. … Safety of the freight and Amtrak trains, pedestrians, and riders remains a primary concern for NCRR, therefore we are unable to approve the plans in their current stage as the basis of a signed lease."

GoTriangle said it would consult with county officials and the Federal Transit Administration to determine its next course of action.

Image: A rendering of the proposed light rail system in Durham (GoTriangle)

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