Duke University rejected plans for the $2.5 billion, 17.7-mile Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project last February, on which GoTriangle wanted to start construction this year. A month later, GoTriangle, the organization in charge of public transit in the greater Triangle area, announced it would abandon the project.
A year on now, there are two major questions about the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project, that was re-proposed in 2012 and then sporadically discussed in the media until late 2018, when it exploded into a toxic issue and the light rail was misleadingly cast as a must-have for Durham.
The questions: We’ve been going through a chaotic time. Why was GoTriangle so intent on pushing through a huge project instead of simply maintaining existing services and waiting to see where new demand in the population would be?
And where did the $159 million spent on the light rail go?
The obvious questions
The easiest way for a new transportation linking Northeast-Central Durham with Duke and UNC would have been to go through U.S. 15-501. The space to install a new rail line is already there on an eight-lane highway.
But if GoTriangle had presented a map for this obvious route, then it would have been easy to ask questions like: Can we not just have more buses?
And let’s say the light rail debate and the toxic rhetoric around it didn’t happen in 2018. Let’s say this happened in 2008 when civic discourse was more abundant and open. This project would have never passed muster and would have immediately raised these obvious questions:
Why can’t the congestion be solved with more buses? Why that route? Why not be more sensitive to the neighborhoods it runs through? We have been more interested in bicycling. Why is that not being discussed? We’ve also had talk of “aging in place” communities. Why are they not being discussed? If more buses went from UNC to South Durham, it would cut the traffic down substantially. Why is that not being discussed? Should those be UNC buses or should they be public buses? Maybe we should talk to UNC about that. The culture of the South is one that prefers driving in your own car. So can a light rail work here at all? There are also political and cultural events that are causing traffic congestion and increased population, and they are temporary. We are in a politically tumultuous time. People are divided and scared. Shouldn’t we consider that maybe there is less carpooling and there is less mindfulness of driving habits? People probably head out only when they feel safe, period. People are also driving long distances for their jobs, because again, a lot of people are looking for places where they can be hunkered down and safe. People are exhausted, scared, and confused right now. The general public doesn’t have the mindset, the time, or the energy to think about a project of this size. Why is this being pushed through? Shouldn’t we delay? GoTriangle can simply maintain the transit system we do have. Why is that not simply being done?
These are questions that would have been raised at city council meetings, Chamber of Commerce meetings and downtown planning meetings.
The light rail was proposed to be $2.5 billion, but estimated to be much more than that with interest added — $3.3 billion.
Why were these questions not raised? What happened in 2018?
No, the light rail was never under serious discussion until very recently. The argument that it had been since the ‘90s was outright false.
The discussion for a good decade leading up to 2012 in Durham was downtown road improvements and fixing potholes. The renewed access to the train station was exciting. The new bus station designed by the late Phil Freelon was exciting. People liked bike lanes, and there was talk of “aging in place” communities.
The light rail had been under discussion, as anyone can see from old news articles from the ’90s. But it was never under such serious discussion that it floated to the top of the general public’s awareness. It was never a top news item and issue of concern for Durham residents like downtown revitalization and downtown street improvements were, or even potholes. In Chapel Hill, there was a continual exploration of the bus system and bicycles.
By the late 2000s, the light rail actually fell completely off the radar. The fact that a transit tax was passed for it in 2011 and 2012 was a surprising thing to have happen. GoTriangle bringing the light rail back to the general public halfway through 2012 was another surprise.
The light rail was the worst example of a culture that lost all sight of what “innovation” and “progress” really mean.
Why do we want self-driving cars? They are innovative. Why are they innovative? Because they are self-driving cars.
Why do we want Google Fiber? It’s innovative. Why is it innovative? Because it’s Google.
Why do we want 5G? It’s innovative. Why is it innovative? Because…
This is mind-numbing.
True progress and innovation rise out of culture and context.
In this area, in 2011, the interest was in buses. People were bicycling and then taking a bus to work.
Why were people interested in buses in 2011? Because we were so busy working, and our work days were so full – and our schedules were so rigid – that riding the bus still felt like it was a progressive, good thing to do. It took effort to plan your workday taking the bus schedule into account, and riding the bus also meant you were environmentally conscious. It was forward-thinking. But that waned because a lot of our culture is in flux and has been for a while now. Workplace culture has changed and there isn’t the same level of activity to sustain the kind of discussion and interest we had in buses in 2011. Can workplace culture get back to that abundance? Now, that is something that people have clamored for and people do want.
And why have people been riding Uber so much? It’s because there is so much fear and chaos in the country right now, and workplaces have become stressful in the most unimaginable ways, that people aren’t carpooling. People are going to the grocery store at odd times and not with any regularity. People are only venturing out when they feel safe, which means a lack of emotional diversity and traffic congestion. Everyone gets the same motivation at the same time.
We’ve actually been going through a time when people are very unable to take public transportation. There just isn’t the space in our lives to make that a priority.
Why did GoTriangle want to push through the light rail at any cost?
Tunneling under Blackwell Street. Spot rezoning for an industrial rail yard in a residential area. Raising the train at Duke Hospital.
While GoTriangle was making these moves to ensure the light rail would be passed, everything was so precarious in the working world every day in late 2018 and early 2019, that there was no space or energy at all to think, let alone take action on such a project.
Not even college students were as able to handle discussion around this issue as they would have been during practically any other year. What was college campus life like in late 2018? At the beginning of the movie “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Freddie Mercury, played by Rami Malek, wakes up and coughs. That moment was relevant for a reason to young people, themselves wandering around campuses and workplaces with a growing ubiquity of Emergen-C tablets.
Here’s another example of how winter 2018 felt. Watch the Maroon 5 Superbowl halftime show, a creepy, malevolent-looking halftime show that’s out of character for the pop-rock band, and in an uncontrollable way. It was as if the band just could not put on a happy, normal show.
That was exactly how it felt in the world. It was a very dark, malevolent time. And in the midst of that, Go Triangle was doing everything they could to push this through. Why?
February 2019 was when the fight over the light rail became the most desperate. On Jan. 31, residents off Leigh Farm Road filed a lawsuit to block the rezoning for a maintenance rail yard in their neighborhood. On Feb. 7, a rally was held at the Durham bus station to urge Duke to give approval to the light rail.
The day after the rally, Durham and GoTriangle officials met with Duke administrators to discuss Duke’s ongoing concerns about the Erwin Road stop.
And GoTriangle further ramped up the pressure. The organization gave The N&O and The Herald-Sun a report detailing that meeting and others it had with Duke.
A day after that story ran, Duke sent a letter to GoTriangle rejecting the light rail project.
The backlash was overwhelming.
Durham City Councilman Mark-Anthony Middleton immediately recommended in an op-ed in The Independent Weekly that Durham and GoTriangle should just exercise eminent domain and take land from Duke.
What I find strange is what I have not heard. Why hasn’t the specter of using eminent domain to obtain the land needed from Duke been publicly raised? If light rail is truly all it is billed to be, then how can we allow it not to happen?
A few weeks ago, I cast an affirmative vote to rezone land in close proximity to an age-specific community for a Rail Maintenance Operations Facility in service to a project that seemed to drip with promise and inevitability. Parcels of the land I voted to rezone were acquired through eminent domain from private landowners.
What makes Duke University so different?
What a highly incendiary and irresponsible thing to propose in early 2019. This would be alarming at any time to have a city councilman propose something so drastic so easily, overriding not only Duke’s decision but also Durham residents who also had objections and concerns about the light rail that were obviously not being heard.
But proposing to do this in early 2019 was the most destabilizing, dangerous thing.
Because during that time, this is what was happening:
That was in April. In Durham and Chapel Hill, in the Triangle, construction and roadwork were happening everywhere, at the most random times, and in ways that were potentially dangerous for residents. It wasn’t until this horrible accident at that those constructions eased up.
In this context, the city exercising eminent domain during that politically intense time and against Duke, would have given carte blanche to any number of people who could have opened a gas main, planted the wrong flag, failed to inspect an electrical line properly. And that could have been done against any regular business or homeowner they didn’t like.
GoTriangle, being in transit and being a public organization, must have known that these kinds of abuses were happening all the time, and are still happening. Did not one of their buses get held up by construction on N.C. 54? On the Durham Freeway? On Interstate 85?
Meanwhile, news reports leaned into the darkness of the time instead of doing anything to stabilize what was going on as journalists are supposed to do. In March, The Indy actually ran this horrible headline:
Duke wasn’t saying that to GoTriangle. But that message was definitely received by the Indy’s readers.
“Drop dead,” the Indy said. What a headline.
What happened in 2012?
GoTriangle brought the light rail back to the forefront of its initiatives in April 2012.
That’s interesting timing considering 2012 was when Millennials had begun our adventurous, exploratory years. That was when people were in California, Texas, graduate school. That was when this country’s new wave of political awakening was beginning. 2012 was the year of Barack Obama’s re-election. The Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring, which both began in 2011, were still ongoing in 2012. That year was also marred by the Trayvon Martin and Sandy Hook shootings.
In many ways, the transit taxes that were passed had overestimated how much people would want to use public transportation because they had not anticipated that there would be so much political upheaval in the coming years.
There was nothing going on in this area or in the country that said, “We need a light rail system.” Because young people were going through a lot of exploring and thinking and we didn’t know what our needs would be yet. There was no regularity to what young people were doing during that exploratory time. People were leaving jobs and getting into new jobs, thinking about going to school, exploring different options. If GoTriangle had maintained its existing services and emphasized them, they would have drawn a steady ridership.
But instead, GoTriangle made the light rail the top of their agendas for the remainder of the decade.
According to GoTriangle, Duke officials “rarely attended planning meetings after 2015.”
2015 was when Millennials’ exploratory years ended. Summer 2015, young people were jubilant when the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. After that, people were ready to get back to work.
Perhaps Duke had accurately assessed that the energy spent on the light rail should start to be spent on people who were about to come back to the workforce, come back to the community. And, three years is a good amount of time for a project that was a surprise to begin with to be discussed seriously.
And in 1999, Duke had said the light rail would wreck the character of the area in front of the hospital. That argument was true, and the university left it at that.
By 2018 and 2019, Duke should have been able to do the same. The problem was that it could not, and no one could say the simple, true thing.
March 30, 2019
The weekend after GoTriangle announced they would abandon the light rail project was a very happy weekend.
That’s not an exaggeration.
I had felt completely powerless to say anything. I could only breathe a sigh of relief when the project failed. That weekend, I went out hiking everywhere with my dog for the first time in a while and it felt like everyone had the same thought, in Chapel Hill, Hillsborough, everywhere. I still remember. People were all so happy and friendly.
Things had been wrecked in ways that I guess we never imagined. But people, basic relating, kindness, memories, having a nice time outside – that was all still there. People still floated above it.
Photo taken on a day spent outdoors, March 30, 2019.
More recently, I was driving on N.C. 54 and realized that for the first time in what feels like a long time, I can just drive and let my mind wander, and think. Think about people, think about stories. And not just think but feel my way through everything. I can just be a little bit. It’s very wrong that that’s been so hard to have, just the space to be. And it’s terrifying to think that that openness could have been wrecked and actually overridden and exploited — for years, and maybe forever for young people, if construction on the light rail was ever allowed to go forward.
We could have lost so much because people cared about abstractions instead of reality and actual people.
In the end, Duke was the only entity with the power and the grounding to say, “No.” Durham is very lucky it did.