Light Rail Debacle Perfectly Encapsulates Triangle-Area Elitism
The Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project, proposed in the 1990s as a connector between the major Durham and Orange County employers, including UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, and NC Central Universities as well as the VA medical center and downtown Durham, has been all but shut down as a result of a funding decision by Duke University administrators. In early March, the university said that representatives would not be willing to sign a cooperative funding agreement, nor would they be participating in a mediated negotiation with GoTriangle, the primary transit organizers for the project. Approval and support from Duke University would have been critical in gaining a federal grant which would fund over half of the project. Without this support, the project, which was expected to improve quality of life for the region by reducing emissions, congestion, and transit access disparities, is unlikely to move forward. In withdrawing support, Duke cited concerns of interruptions to hospital and university services during construction, as well as potential interference with research as a result of vibrations and electrical waves caused by the light rail. While interruptions to normal operations during construction could be inconvenient to the university community, the long-term value added for the entirety of the Durham-Orange region would almost certainly outweigh the short-term cost.
Duke University’s inflexibility on this issue reflects a larger culture of university elitism within the Research Triangle region of North Carolina. In the mid-1950s, North Carolina, still reliant on manufacturing jobs, lagged behind the rest of the Southeast with a per capita income of just $1,049. Local leaders planned Research Triangle Park as a means of attracting what they deemed “modern industries” to the state. The idea was to capitalize on the proximity of three of the region’s premier research universities (Duke, UNC-Chapel Hill, and NC State) to facilitate the growth of a modern research hub. RTP is now one of the top-ranking centers for research in the United States. RTP was planned as a non-profit venture, with support from the three universities. Planned as a non-profit venture, the RTP plan initially required support from the three universities for development. In turn, the universities gained massive influence on the region and the entire state of North Carolina, which manifest in a particular way as the universities, part of a private development park, influence public projects like the light rail system.
All three of the universities provide substantial development opportunities for the Triangle region. Duke holds particular influence over the city and county of Durham as a private institution and large stakeholder in the city. As a result, the university is able to use its funding and influence to shape the way in which the city and county of Durham, as well as the entire Triangle area, develops. Regardless of the potential benefits provided by an Orange-Durham light rail, the assumed and real importance and influence of the university is the top priority. The reality, unfortunately, is that while the university comprises a relatively small portion of the population , the entire population of Durham is suffering losses as the university pulls support for moving forward with the transit system.
There is certainly an argument for the notion that, because the universities employ so many Triangle residents, they should reserve the right to exert influence as they please. It is true that the universities directly and indirectly employ large numbers of the Triangle population. In the case of the light rail, however, the argument that this legitimizes exertion of influence is misguided, because the influence that Duke University in particular has chosen to exert is actually hypocritical when understood in conjunction with the values the university claims to espouse. The light rail would have been a huge stride forward in reducing automobile emissions and facilitating more active lifestyles in a corridor known for congestion and car travel. If Duke truly had the region’s best interests in mind, the university would wholeheartedly support or at least provide recommendations to improve the Orange-Durham light rail plan. Instead, the university continues to perpetuate the norm of using influence to shape the development of the Triangle area in favor of selfish interests. Unfortunately, this story will be repeated until the universities can be understood as equal members of the Triangle development rather than gracious hosts to a dependent community.