The Federal Transit Administration has authorized engineering to go forward on the $2.47 billion, 17.7-mile light-rail transit project connecting North Carolina's Durham and Orange counties, according to The Herald-Sun.
The FTA decision keeps the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project in the running for $1.2 billion in federal Capital Investment Grant funding. GoTriangle, the region's transit authority, must raise the remaining funds from state and local sources, which will include vehicle registration fees, car rental fees, a transit tax and donations.
GoTriangle officials said the project will create thousands of jobs and connect commuters to three hospitals, three universities and major employment centers while easing the area's congested highways.
The question remains whether the FTA will be able come through on a massive contribution for the project when the time comes to make the final financing commitment. The administration's ability to provide such funding could run up against complications from President Donald Trump's 2018 budget proposal, which favors scratching the CIG program, as well as Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants entirely.
Though the House has generally fallen in line with the Trump administration, future grant recipients — like the Durham-Orange light-rail project — might get relief from the Senate, which not only ignored the president's requests to cut such programs, but recently increased spending for them
The GoTriangle project and others like it face other potential roadblocks from environmental reviews. The process has the power to sideline such projects altogether, or to delay them to the point of schedule and budget overruns.
A year ago, a federal judge stopped Maryland's $5.6 billion Purple Line light-rail project in its tracks when he yanked its federal and state approvals just a few days before it was scheduled to receive a $900 million federal construction grant.
The issue at hand was the reliability of the ridership projections in the Purple Line's environmental review. Officials based their numbers on the DC Metrorail's ridership, but U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon believed organizers did not consider the impact of that system's declining ridership.
After almost a year of legal wrangling and, according to the state of Maryland, $13 million per month in delay-related cost overruns, an appeals court judge reinstated the environmental approval and ruled that construction could begin. Still, the state must go back to the FTA to request the funding it lost in August 2016.