Duke's Heavy Hand on Light Rail

A mock-up of GoTriangle’s now-defunct Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project ( Image )

A mock-up of GoTriangle’s now-defunct Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project (Image)


Picture this: you, a hungry but broke Tar Heel, suddenly catch a craving for the cheap euphoria of a Cook Out tray. For a mere five dollars, you could have access to a wide selection of fast food treats. But the rub lies in the destination; as we all know too well, there is no Cook Out in Chapel Hill. To satiate your desire requires a an eight-mile journey — eight miles into enemy territory: Durham. In an ideal world, the eight-mile trip to Durham would take a reasonable amount of time, around ten minutes. This is not an ideal world, however. In this world, the trip requires braving the dangers of 15/501 or, even worse, I-40.

The mere thought of driving on I-40 during rush hour traffic is nightmare inducing. A trip that was supposed to take ten minutes can easily turn into a half hour. This problem is not new, and it was not unexpected. Since the 1980s, researchers in the Triangle have been on the hunt for solutions to congestion. The problem has been exacerbated in recent years, as the Triangle has become an economic powerhouse and one of the fastest growing areas of the state and the country.

The Triangle Transit Authority, now GoTriangle, was created in 1989 by the North Carolina General Assembly. TTA was tasked with the creation of a transit plan for the region. The TTA conducted studies comparing light rail with bus rapid transit. In the end, the TTA determined that light rail would be more effective in terms of cost, long-term viability, and transit times. Light rail seemed to be the best option to mitigate current and future congestion in the Tobacco Road corridor. And positive steps have since been taken to make it happen.

In 2012, the town of Chapel Hill implemented a half-cent sales tax to help pay for the light rail line. Around $130 million has already been spent on the light rail line, also. The most important aspect in terms of funding the project was federal and state dollars. The FTA was prepared to offer around $1.5 billion if a plan could be agreed upon by all parties. It seemed as though this would be achievable by the deadline, as none of the involved parties had expressed concern on the placement of the line.

However, earlier this year, this ambitious and forward thinking project was dealt a death blow by none other than Duke University. Duke officials refused to negotiate with GoTriangle after rejecting to sign a cooperative agreement that would be necessary for the project’s future.

Duke has refused negotiation with GoTriangle, citing that the proposed light rail would interfere with research and diagnostic equipment at the university and its medical facilities. Further, Duke said that the project “poses significant and unacceptable risks to the safety of the nearly 1.5 million patients who receive care at our hospital and clinics each year, and the future viability of health care and research at Duke.”

Prior to this statement, Duke expressed no concern over the route of the light rail line, even as they signed a memorandum of cooperation with GoTriangle in 2016. Duke’s decision to reject the Durham-Orange light rail line flies in the face of its stated commitment to “intellectual growth” and “development as adults committed to high ethical standards and full participation as leaders in their communities.” It is the responsibility of Duke and all universities to engage in these tasks of intellectual growth, ethics, and community leadership. Swinging a wrecking ball into a project nearly forty years in the making flies in the face of these commitments, especially as the country grapples with the effects of climate change and environmental disaster.

Moreover, it is also the social responsibility of Duke, and all institutes of higher learning in the area, to make the Triangle accessible. Duke’s location in the historically black city of Durham further highlights the injustice within the rejection of the light rail project. As residents are evicted from their homes due to rising costs of living and gentrification, Duke has the resources and minds to help ease the problem. The Durham-Orange light rail line is exactly the type of project that could allow greater accessibility to jobs and education in the Triangle for people of low socioeconomic status. Instead of investing in and lobbying for the project, however, Duke has abdicated its responsibility to serve the community and joined the gentrifiers.

Carolina students find it easy to hate Duke. Their rejection of a common-sense solution to traffic congestion, gentrification, and climate change gives us all the more reason to spite our rival in Durham. After all, a light-rail station would look great in place of Cameron Indoor Stadium.