Duke University Faces Community Pressure to Embrace Light Rail

©. GoTriangle

And it's dredging up past resentment.

Remember when North Carolina state legislators defunded light rail, and a city stepped up to fill the gap? It turns out that nothing is ever easy. While the project has been progressing and plans have been built based upon that progress (the number of new apartment buildings alone around the proposed route is dramatic!), it turns out that Duke University may still serve as a stumbling block to moving things forward.

It turns out that the University President, Vincent E. Price, has until tomorrow to sign a co-operative agreement with the local transit authority GoTriangle to continue exploring the route and address any remaining issues regarding Duke University Hospital and access for its emergency vehicles. This is—at least according to the word in my community—one of the last remaining stumbling blocks, but without this agreement the project simply cannot move forward.

Of course, politics is always complicated. Duke, which has had a checkered history with the city in which it is located (it's not uncommon to hear it referred to as "the plantation" by many locals), has been making a noticeable effort to improve its relations with the community and invest in the city in recent years. That's why many local activists, faculty and community members are surprised at the delay in signing. And the feeling from many of us here is that this is as much an issue of social and economic equity as it is one of environmental benefits.

Here's just one excerpt from a letter sent by one of my neighbors, Linda Belans, to President Price:

When I was a Duke Medical Center employee, I rode the Duke bus with hourly-wage workers who suffered great hardships driving to Duke parking lots and paying exorbitant parking fees just to get to and from work. Then, they had to wait for that bus in the rain, or freezing weather, or insufferable heat. This cost them in time and money and morale. They were vocal about it. They felt unseen and unappreciated. In order to make your vision and strategic plan practical, and to communicate to the larger Durham community that you really care about their economic well-being, Duke needs to say Yes to light rail. If people can’t easily and affordably get to Duke to clean the floors, transport patients, cook food, greet patients, maintain the buildings and glorious gardens, they/we will never feel as if you really mean that you want to “advance not just economic development but also community health, housing, and public education."

Echoing these sentiments, leading members of the Black community are supporting the project as a potential opportunity to support diversity and equity in a city where a huge influx of new residents is changing the face of the city, as long as intentional decisions are made along the way to ensure benefit for all:

The DCABP sees this as another opportunity to commit to an investment strategy that lifts up community driven development projects in neighborhoods with high displacement risk, invests in community organizing and capacity building, and works to preserve affordable and low-income housing by taking land off of the speculative market. More specifically, the DCABP sees this as an opportunity to buy and hold land for affordable and low-income homeownership in an effort to prevent displacement.

Whether or not Duke chooses to sign the agreement, the feeling on the ground here (at least surveying my neighborhood listserv) is that there is vociferous public support in the surrounding community for getting this done. "Bleed Blue, Live Green" slogans don't mean all that much if everyone still drives a gas guzzling SUV to the game...