Commentary, Environment, public health

Duke University is killing regional light rail, while air pollution from cars kills people.

Archival photo of the Personal Rapid Transit, a tram line at Duke Medical Center, from Duke Today. The PRT operated from 1979 to 2009.

The irony is not lost on me, or many people, that the heart of the Duke Medical Center district — a congested stretch of Erwin Road, between Fulton and Trent streets — is hazardous to public health.

Put aside for the moment, the imminent physical peril that threatens bicyclists on those thoroughfares or pedestrians attempting to cross the streets, even if the walk sign assures them it’s safe to do so. The longer-term damage stems from the thousands of cars that pass by, that stack up 10 deep at the stoplights, that circle the dizzying mazes inside parking garages in search of a free space, that idle at valet parking or patient drop-off.

Air pollution from those thousands of tailpipes contribute to some of the very diseases and disorders that Duke doctors, nurses and researchers are trying to cure: asthma, heart disease, cancer, reduced lung function and premature death. MIT researchers estimated that in 2005 air pollution-related mortality shortened the average victim’s lifespan by 12 years.

There is a partial solution to this air pollution problem, or there was. Go Triangle’s 18-mile light rail line connecting NC Central University to downtown Durham, Duke University, Duke Medical Center, Chapel Hill and UNC Hospitals was supposed to dislodge people from their polluting cars and move them en masse to major education and employment centers with a lighter carbon footprint.

Now, though, Duke University, which for years supported the light-rail project, has suddenly refused to sign a cooperative agreement with GoTriangle that would allow the line to be built. Duke had planned to donate land for the rail line — in fact, the project aligns with university’s own climate change goals — but now university president Vincent Price is backing out.

In a letter to GoTriangle, Price cites as reasons construction vibrations and traffic disruptions, electrical frequency interference and possible power outages. (This is some weak sauce. Hospitals in major cities, like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, connect to rail lines and subways.)

Here’s another example of why this rationale is disingenuous. Duke University and its Medical Center operated a rail line for 30 years. The cars rode on a “cushion of air” and were “propelled forward with the help of magnets.”
From a 2017 article in Duke Today:

For almost three decades, Personal Rapid Transit whisked patients, staff and visitors between the expanding hospital’s facilities at Duke South, Duke North and Parking Garage No. 2. It was taken out of service in 2009 and most of it was demolished to make way for the Duke Cancer Center and Duke Medicine Pavilion.

Surely the rail line’s demolition, in tandem with the construction and expansion of the Medical Center caused vibrations. Did new utility lines have to be run? Why yes.  And what of the magnets? Were MRI machines going haywire? Apparently not.

Mass transit is also key to offsetting the global damage from climate change. Transportation accounts for nearly a third of greenhouse gas emissions in North Carolina, according to the state’s recently published GHG inventory. Since the Trump administration is proposing to relax vehicle emissions standards, North Carolina’s decrease in tailpipe emissions — 12 percent from 2007 to 2015 — is in jeopardy.

Duke University’s own Climate Action Plan, published last November, advocates for enhanced public transit access, including “regional light rail, efficient bus routes, etc. that connect employees to Duke University.”

Nothing short of becoming its own city seems to align with Duke’s vision of civic duty. The university already strong-armed Durham into changing the route of the Bull City Connector, a free campus-to-downtown bus that ran every 15 to 20 minutes. The service was especially popular among low-income Durham residents — and moderate-income townies like myself.

But Duke argued that the timetable was insufficient for its employees and students. Thus, the university demanded that the BCC save time by bypassing the main transit center, the hub where people could transfer to the fare-free system. Durham caved to that demand, over much opposition from the Black community and its allies. Yet even that major route alteration didn’t satisfy Duke. The university withdrew funding for the route, and now it’s in jeopardy. And it still doesn’t stop at the main transit center.

Instead, Duke started a shuttle service — wait for it — with a stop next to the transit center that runs nearly the identical route as the BCC. But you must have a Duke ID to board the cocoon. Unencumbered by the hoi polloi, riders can be whisked to their destinations on a cushion of airs, propelled not forward, but backward — to a regressive, shortsighted, punitive transit policy. It’s bad not just for the patients, students and workers at Duke, but also the residents of Durham, and ultimately, the planet.

4 Comments


  1. Nick dranger

    February 28, 2019 at 5:52 pm

    Come on. A light rail is going to solve our climate problems. This is old technology. It is reckless to make this kind of investment when we are so close to breakthroughs in technologies that will make light rails obsolete.

  2. Mark Barroso

    February 28, 2019 at 10:09 pm

    I think of myself as a progressive and an environmentalist but this project was an obscene financial boondoggle from the start. This particular plan DOES NOT go to Chapel Hill, except for UNC hospital and an upscale mixed-use development that borders Durham. We liberals like the concept of mass transit, but many studies say we don’t use it because of the inconvenience. The devil IS in the details. To think it will be built on time and on budget is a fantasy, and will only thwart other, more cost effective ideas like electric buses, HOV lanes and bike paths.

    If I lived in Durham, this project might turn me into a Republican.

  3. Ann Wood

    March 1, 2019 at 7:34 pm

    Duke University has become a corporate shill, interested more in their own wealth than in their core mission (?) of
    caring for the students, faculty, public, and citizens who should be able to rely on them as a force for good
    Whatever are you thinking Duke? Oh, maybe that is the problem, you have resorted to reacting rather than thinking.
    So much for my past support of Duke.

  4. Patrick

    March 2, 2019 at 11:11 am

    It will take at least 8 years to build the DOLRT. During that time, many buses and cars will be converted to electric vehicles. Very few people driving cars now will switch to the train. There’s no credible evidence to suggest the DOLRT will reduce pollution. Why not focus the $5B on buying electric buses and building renewable energy infrastructure to power them.

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