Donald Trump Promised Big Bucks for Infrastructure. Could That Save Light Rail? | Durham County | Indy Week
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Donald Trump Promised Big Bucks for Infrastructure. Could That Save Light Rail? 

A proposed light-rail station in Durham Courtesy of GoTriangle

Courtesy of GoTriangle

A proposed light-rail station in Durham Courtesy of GoTriangle

Candidate Donald Trump said he wanted to be the leader who spearheaded an effort to rebuild the nation's "crumbling" infrastructure. In his election night victory speech, he promised to "fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We're going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it."

A few weeks before the election, he was more specific: "The American Infrastructure Act leverages public-private partnerships and private investments through tax incentives to spur one trillion dollars in infrastructure investment over the next ten years."

But U.S. Representative G.K. Butterfield told the INDY Monday that it remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will, in fact, champion federal spending on projects like the $2.5 billion Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project, which remains an if in part because of nagging funding questions.

Butterfield and his Democratic colleague, U.S. Representative David Price, took a bus tour along GoTriangle's proposed light-rail route last week and praised its quest to construct a 17.7-mile line that would connect, among other things, Triangle universities and hospitals.

But from his office in Washington a week later, Butterfield told that INDY that "we cannot continue to kick the can down the road" and expect to see the project come to fruition, adding that he would believe Trump "when the rubber hits the road and he looks the Republicans in the eye ... and [tells them] that it's in our national interest to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure."

Under the current light-rail proposal, the federal government would be responsible for half of the project's price tag—a little north of $1 billion—and while many assume Trump and Democrats have no common ground, Butterfield says the president got their attention when he campaigned on infrastructure investments.

Whether or not he was genuine "remains to be seen, but that's one of the few things that President Trump has talked about that gets our attention," Butterfield says. "Democrats are eager to [see] substantial investment in infrastructure because we know the dividends. The question is, where do we get the money from?"

Locally, the answer is taxes. Durham County passed a half-cent sales tax in 2011, and Orange County followed suit the following year. But when the state, which was supposed to pick up 25 percent of the tab, set a spending cap last year of 10 percent, it delivered a blow to the future of rail.

Butterfield thinks the legislature's decision was short-sighted.

"The Republican legislature should have the courage and the ability to think strategically," he says, noting that the same body had no problem shelling out more than $2 billion for the Highway 540 expansion project. "We need to put light rail at the same level."

Nonetheless, Butterfield says he still feels somewhat optimistic about the project. He has "reason to believe that there will be more money placed into the light-rail account," but he did not elaborate.

Light rail, he says, is gaining popularity, a notion seemingly supported by the constant stream of email to Durham city council members encouraging the board to support the project. And Butterfield feels it's possible that private investors could help fill funding gaps "if we can get creative."

"We're really going to have to bring in some private capital," he says.

Price, meanwhile, told the INDY that GoTriangle has "made good progress" and argues that the approval, in November, by Wake County voters of a half-cent sales tax increase to help fund an expansion of public bus and train services was a victory for the Durham-Orange project, as it would allow the two systems to integrate, creating a Triangle-wide transit system. (When Durham and Orange passed sales tax hikes several years ago, the Wake Board of Commissioners balked.)

As for the funding gap created by the legislative cap on light-rail projects, Price says the shortfall isn't insurmountable. "Yes, the state gave us a bad deal with that cap and we've got to try to change that, but the GoTriangle organization has worked very hard to come up with a plan where we can survive this."

Public-private partnerships with companies that operate near certain stops could bring in additional funds. And taking out loans is also an option. John Tallmadge, GoTriangle's director of regional services, says there will be changes in the financial model when a new draft of the plan is released this spring.

For now, though, the future of light rail in the Triangle remains very much up in the air. And nothing short of significant federal intervention will change that.

"When we're talking about highways, nobody blinks an eye," Butterfield says. "They are ready, set, go, and that's because highways and road projects are assumed to be in the public interest. So we want to hear President Trump's State of the Union message. Republicans have shut us down because they say the deficit is too high."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Trainspotting."

  • The $2.5 billion Durham-Orange County project needs a federal cash infusion

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