March Madness of another kind

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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The just-abandoned GoTriangle light rail project in North Carolina, while never a slam-dunk, was until recently an interesting game. Now, after a few critical blocked shots and maybe even several offensive fouls, it appears to be a forfeit.

The GoTriangle (Research Triangle Regional Public Transportation Authority) Board of Trustees on March 27 voted unanimously to halt the $3.3 billion planned LRT for North Carolina’s Research Triangle in Durham and Orange Counties. Local media reports have focused on opposition from Duke University as the primary reason for the project’s discontinuance, but it turns out that the Blue Devils account for only part of the details.

In late February, Duke University announced it would not allow a portion of the planned 17.7-mile LRT to pass through its campus. The University’s decision, in which it refused to sign a cooperative agreement, came just days before a Feb. 28 deadline related to Federal Transit Administration financing. It appeared to be the final blow to the project.

A GoTriangle report released shortly before Duke’s decision not to sign the cooperative agreement and donate land for the LRT along Erwin Road, which passes through its campus, said meetings with the University about the project “began to reveal bizarre contradictions, complications and a general dissatisfaction” after 15 years of collaboration. Duke officials “rarely attended planning meetings after 2015, delayed critical information about their needs, and only in recent months raised concerns about how the light rail system might affect sensitive medical and research equipment,” the report noted.

Duke University, according to The Chronicle, its student-run news outlet, “cited concerns about electromagnetic interference, construction that may cause vibrations in building a line near Duke Hospital and the Eye Center, among other concerns.”

Durham and Orange Counties “have used this approved light rail alignment as a basis for land use, economic development and affordable housing plans to best accommodate the more than 7,000 people the counties are adding each year,” GoTriangle CEO Jeff Mann said in a statement following agency’s decision to abandon the project. “Unfortunately, this project has recently faced a number of significant [problems], most notably Duke University’s refusal to sign necessary agreements with GoTriangle.”

In a March 27 email statement to The Chronicle, Duke University Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld said the University “shares GoTriangle’s commitment to the success of Durham and the region, and looks forward to working together in the future on this and many other important issues. The need for a comprehensive, sustainable and dynamic regional transit solution is more urgent than ever. Duke will be an enthusiastic participant in developing a plan that serves the greatest number of our citizens, and makes the best and most effective use of all modes of transportation and new technologies. [We] recognize and salute the enormous amount of work that many people, in particular our past and present elected officials, put into the light rail project.”

The story, though, is far more complex than The Chronicle and other local media led people in the community to believe. The student newspaper’s story only mentioned in passing that the North Carolina Railroad Co. (NCRR) also did not sign the cooperative agreement.

While that’s true, NCRR—a small portion of whose right-of-way would contain LRT trackage (albeit not shared operations)—could not sign off on the project, for legitimate reasons related to main-line freight and passenger railroading that the general media would not fully understand, much less even try to understand. I’ve seen these types of incomplete, inaccurate (mostly both!) stories, where important information is often left out or disregarded, many times over the years. (Remember the recent 60 Minutes report on PTC? I’m still shaking my head over why CBS News decided to go ahead with what was essentially a non-story.)

I contacted NCRR for clarification, which was provided in detail:

In a Feb. 27 letter to Jeff Mann, NCRR noted that GoTriangle had advanced a number of plans for light rail over the years, “most of which included proposed use of the NCRR corridor between Raleigh and Durham. More recently, those plans were adapted and revised, and a final GoTriangle plan to introduce light rail emerged in 2014-15 as an electrified transit system using overhead wires on separate, dedicated track, proposing to use the NCRR corridor through downtown Durham for approximately two miles.

“Through each of these scenarios, NCRR and our operating railroad partner, Norfolk Southern, reviewed … plans and offered comments in an effort to ensure the proposed plans would be compatible with the existing infrastructure for main line freight and Amtrak train systems, as well as future commuter rail, all within or along the NCRR corridor.

“Over recent weeks, GoTriangle has worked on revised conceptual plans, which we understand to be approximately 20% designed (i.e. not yet fully engineered). Optimistically, when completed, you will have addressed the technical challenges and safety issues presented by locating a light rail operation within and adjacent to the active freight and Amtrak passenger rail corridor, and can achieve GoTriangle’s goal of high-frequency transit east-west through downtown Durham.

“[T]he 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. The near-term goal of our engineering teams is to determine all of the details necessary to fit the new tracks, supporting below ground retaining walls, bridges, electronic control systems, stations, and electric overhead wires … 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.

“We believe the current design is vastly improved over the 2018 plan, and is likely to be approved once the details are available and reviewed in the months ahead. However, GoTriangle management acknowledges that there is design work remaining to be done to determine exactly what property and infrastructure will be needed. This includes location and strength/design of retaining walls, station locations, emergency exits and life safety locations …

“Before NCRR is comfortable executing agreements, the following open issues must be resolved, which include, but are not limited to: (1) the lease fee; (2) the performance guaranty payment provisions; (3) indemnification; and (4) engineering plans …

“We communicated that before recommending execution of a lease, NCRR required final plans, or 65% plans at a minimum, the standard NCDOT uses when acquiring land for new construction. Nonetheless, we have indicated to you that we would be willing to commit to the form of that lease document, which will include final agreement on the one-time rental fee, a performance guaranty payment, and liability and indemnification clauses acceptable to NCRR and Norfolk Southern that have thus far not been agreed to by GoTriangle.

“What we suggest is that GoTriangle continue the design work while designated representatives of GoTriangle and NCRR finalize the lease language subject to approved final plans, and that this form of unexecuted lease draft be presented to the FTA in good faith as part of your federal funding applications. We are happy to participate in those meetings with the FTA in order to verify that NCRR is committed to executing a lease upon approval of acceptable final plans, and to see the project through to completion as the issues between the many parties to GoTriangle’s plan continue to be addressed.

“Like you, we have devoted many, many work hours to meetings, draft agreements and plan design changes over the past two years, and will respond timely to reasonable requests to assist GoTriangle in its efforts to make a safe and sustainable light rail system along the NCRR corridor in downtown Durham a reality.”

NCRR President Scott Saylor spoke with me on March 29, following the project’s untimely death.

“The North Carolina Railroad Company’s cooperation with a light rail plan for Durham and Orange Counties dates back more than ten years,” Saylor told me. “It is disappointing that the current plan could not work. As we shared in the letter to GoTriangle on Feb. 27, we affirmed our willingness to execute a lease when final terms are agreed to, and final engineered plans and property boundaries are known.

“GoTriangle was making good progress on the design, though at the time of the decision to discontinue the project, conceptual plans were at 30%. While the FTA may find plans at that stage are acceptable for signed agreements, NCRR did not feel comfortable agreeing to a 100-year lease without better information about the system footprint.

“There is a need for transit services in the Triangle and there is no question that it will have to be addressed. We will continue to work with Durham, Wake County, the Research Triangle Park, regional leaders and major employers to address mobility needs and optimize use of the North Carolina Railroad corridor with compatible systems.”

This project’s collapse after more than a decade of work by transit activists is bad news for the contractors and engineering consultants who had been retained for what promised to be complex construction work. In August 2017, GoTriangle chose Omaha-based HDR Enginering to lead final design and project management. HDR was slated to design all of the bridges and lead engineering and architecture for infrastructure along the proposed alignment, which includes 18 stations, a parking garage and a maintenance facility. In addition, HDR was to lead track design, traffic management, utility relocation, site planning and roadway design. HDR also performed environmental studies and geotechnical engineering in the project’s early phases. (Thank you to Paul Conley, our Engineering Editor and Editor-in-Chief of Railway Track & Structures, for that information.)

Not long after this was written, the number-one-seeded Duke Blue Devils lost to the Michigan State Spartans in NCAA basketball championship Elite Eight round. Many March Madness pundits had picked Duke to bring home the title. They won’t, but even if they had, it unfortunately would not have been to a university campus with light rail in its future. As such, everyone has lost.

By the way, congratulations to MSU. I’m sure that Nick Little, who runs the Center for Railway Research and Education at the Broad College of Business, is pleased!

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