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FAQ on Duke’s Concerns about the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project

President Vincent Price's message to the Duke community concerning the light rail project can be read here.



On February 27, 2019, Duke informed GoTriangle that it would not be able to sign a cooperative agreement for the donation of land and rights of way to the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit (DOLRT) project due to significant unresolved issues regarding segment of the line that would run above Erwin Road directly adjacent to Duke’s hospital, clinics and research laboratories.  While Duke and Go Triangle have worked with intensity and good faith over the past few months to address these issues, the fact remains that the proposed DOLRT alignment down Erwin Road is too risky, and potentially dangerous, to the health, safety and livelihood of too many people in this community, and the future viability of the medical and research enterprise at Duke.



Hospitals and research buildings are complex and very sensitive facilities. They must be kept free of vibration and electromagnetic interference.  For that reason, Duke repeatedly requested consideration of nearby alternative routes that did not endanger patient safety and research integrity and provided the same easy access for passengers traveling to and from Duke. 

Our highest priority is the health and safety of patients who have entrusted us with their care at the most perilous times of their life.  In that environment, the tolerance for risk is as close to zero as possible, and we have an obligation to our patients and the community to uphold that standard.  Duke’s specific concerns are:

  • Electromagnetic interference (EMI).  It is clear that the DOLRT will create EMI that will interfere with current and future patient care and research devices.  It is also clear that there have been inconsistencies in the information that has been generated to date, and we have appreciated the continued efforts of GoTriangle to work with Duke to develop accurate, reliable data that can be evaluated by independent experts.  EMI is not a new or unique problem for urban rail systems.  Indeed, similar studies done in other cities turned out to be incorrect in their estimation of negative impact on research devices.  Since the Erwin Road corridor at Duke contains numerous patient care devices for which any deviation could be catastrophic and potentially fatal, we are not yet able to determine with confidence whether the new study we received last week can adequately address this risk.  If anything, the new data and our independent expert’s review of them have heightened our concerns.
  • Vibration.  The proposed elevated rail line in front of Duke Hospital and the Duke Eye Center will require excavating at least nine 40-foot deep holes in Erwin Road.  This excavation will cause vibrations over a construction period of years and is far beyond the acceptable levels we impose on any public or private construction project in the vicinity of our hospital and clinics.  Duke surgeons perform some of the most complicated and delicate operations done anywhere, at all hours of the day and night.  Even seemingly imperceptible vibrations can be dangerous.  The data that Go Triangle has provided require further analysis and independent review to give us confidence that the highly sensitive patient diagnostic and clinical care devices will be unaffected. 
  • Potential disruption to power and other utilities.  The current DOLRT plan calls for the widening of Erwin Road and further burying the main lines that supply all electric power to the Duke campus, hospital, clinics and laboratories.  Even a temporary interruption in this service would be devastating.  While there continues to be an exchange of information and discussions between Duke University, GoTriangle and Duke Energy, we have yet to confirm a plan that adequately eliminates the risk of disruption and damage during what is likely to be a lengthy construction process.  In addition, the proposed route will require the relocation of other utility infrastructure, including data and water.  We do not know where or how to do this, but it will impose yet-undetermined costs to Duke University.
  • Liability. As a private institution, Duke does not have sovereign immunity like the State of North Carolina, City of Durham, Durham County or GoTriangle itself.  In the event of a major disruption to our operations, or in the worst-case, a tragedy as a result of construction or operation of the DOLRT, Duke would likely be solely liable for damages.  For that reason, we would require insurance or indemnification in an amount high enough to protect Duke University’s ability to operate as an ongoing entity.  We have been unable to agree on the form or amount of that coverage.



Starting in 1999, Duke advised City, County, State and Federal officials, as well as Go Triangle and its predecessor TTA, that there are considerable problems with constructing and running a train line within 150 feet of medical and research facilities on Erwin Road.  Those problems became even more acute in the intervening years as Duke invested more than $2 billion in hospitals and clinics in which physicians are performing delicate procedures like brain surgery, heart surgery and eye surgery all day, every day.  The Erwin Road corridor of the Duke medical campus represents the densest concentration of health care and scientific research equipment and procedures in the state of North Carolina, and one of the densest in the Southeast.

Over the past 20 years, the light rail project has gone through many changes in its proposed route, the equipment that would be used, the total cost, the funding sources, the potential and many other aspects. During that time, Duke University has been consistent in communicating about the significant risks that are created by placing a rail line down Erwin Road adjacent to a hospital and biomedical research center, and we have always acted in good faith in our interactions with GoTriangle and other agencies. 



Duke has enthusiastically supported the creation of a comprehensive and sensible regional transit network for our dynamic and diverse area, one that serves all citizens and makes the best and effective use of all modes of transportation, including buses, commuter rail and light rail.  We recognize the transformative effect such a plan could have on our citizens, particularly those in underserved parts of the community.  It is a high priority for the continued vitality of the Triangle, and we recommit our time and attention to seeking innovative and sustainable solutions.