An idea to tunnel the Durham-Orange Light Rail under Blackwell Street in downtown Durham is an improvement, but presents greater construction impacts and would still affect traffic, Bob Klaus, general manager of the Durham Performing Arts Center, told Durham city council members in a letter Wednesday.

DPAC was one of the downtown institutions – along with American Tobacco and the Durham Bulls – that objected to a proposal from GoTriangle to close Blackwell Street off to traffic to accommodate the light rail tracks. They worried that doing so would cut off them off from downtown’s central business district and that a proposed pedestrian bridge would not be enough to keep downtown’s fabric intact. In response to their concerns as well as Norfolk Southern, which operates existing rail tracks downtown, GoTriangle proposed the tunnel as a way to avoid Blackwell Street altogether.

GoTriangle hasn’t released many details about the proposal, which was sent off for approval by the Federal Transit Administration on Friday after a meeting with about fifty downtown stakeholders. The FTA administers the federal grant GoTriangle is seeking to pay for about half of the $2.47 billion project.

“This new option envisions the light rail line will pass through a tunnel that would extend from approximately the North Deck to the area between Mangum and Roxboro Streets,” Klaus wrote. “Both Blackwell Street and Mangum Street would remain as at-grade crossings for vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists. We further understood you to say that the tunnel plan was the plan that GoTriangle would pursue going forward; likewise, we understand that the plan that envisions closing Blackwell Street is off the table. Based upon these understandings, we want to acknowledge that the revised tunnel plan satisfies the concern we expressed to you related to the closure of Blackwell Street in our letter dated, December 3, 2018 and therefore we believe this is a major improvement to the previous plan.”

But DPAC’s operators say a plan to convert Pettigrew Street to a one-way, eastbound street “is ill-considered” and their concerns about how the construction of all this will impact the theater have only increased.

“It seems self-evident that construction of a tunnel will cause an increase in the duration of construction and greater impact upon adjacent businesses. We therefore believe it is important for the City to insist that GoTriangle incorporate into the construction contract measures that will require the general contractor to take steps to reduce the impact of the project on downtown businesses,” Klaus writes.

Klaus concludes the letter by thanking Mayor Steve Schewel for responding to concerns about the proposal to close Blackwell Street.

“You listened,” he writes. “The same cannot be said for GoTriangle, however. We met with GoTriangle twice in October. We discovered that its attitude was that there was not enough time and not enough money to change anything about its plan.”

Sorting out what to do with the Blackwell Street intersection is critical as GoTriangle works to complete its application for federal funding by April. The agency is hoping to receive a federal funding commitment in September, allowing it to stay on track with a state deadline to have all non-state funding for the project committed by the end of November.

In addition to that deadline, legislators also required that the project have all non-state and non-federal funding committed by April 30 –  which includes the contributions of Durham and Orange counties as well as the proceeds of a nonprofit fundraising effort. GoTransit Partners has about $88 million left to raise via land and cash donations of its $102.5 million goal. GoTriangle is hoping to receive a $16.5 million land donation from Duke University by the end of the year. If either deadline is missed, the project would be removed from consideration for state funding now and in the future.

Last month, two people resigned from the GoTransit Partners board over the Blackwell Street crossing, saying it would harm the American Tobacco area of downtown: Brad Brinegar, with advertising firm McKinney, and Michael Goodmon, with Capitol Broadcasting Company, who had been chairman of the board.

In addition to downtown stakeholders, Duke University president Vincent Price expressed concern about closing Blackwell Street to traffic. GoTriangle needs to secure a cooperation agreement with Duke and is in continuing talks with the university over the alignment and construction plans around its hospital, clinics and medical research facilities. 

Resolving the Blackwell Street dilemma will also help GoTriangle reach agreements with the North Carolina Railroad Company, which owns existing rail tracks downtown alongside which the light rail would run, and Norfolk Southern, which operates those tracks. Norfolk Southern had told GoTriangle it did not want to share crossing protection systems with the light rail at six intersections along the tracks: Duke Street, Blackwell Street, Mangum Street, Dillard Street, Fayetteville Street and Grant Street.

Schewel told the INDY in email that, to accommodate Norfolk Southern, the light rail would go under Duke Street, tunnel under both Blackwell and Mangum streets, and would go on a bridge over Dillard and Fayetteville streets. GoTriangle has estimated all this would cost about $65 million in current year dollars, he said. 

The plan would also require a portion of Pettigrew Street near Alston Avenue to be relocated south to avoid interaction between the light rail and Norfolk Southern. 

Update: GoTriangle released this presentation with more details on the proposal:

PRES FTA Tunnel Submittal by Sarah on Scribd

One reply on “DPAC Responds to Proposal for Downtown Durham Light Rail Tunnel”

  1. I’m personally shocked by the lack of concern about comments made by Mr. Klaus, Michael Goodmon and others downtown. This light rail is designed to serve low-income people who need a reliable way to get to work at the major job centers in the area. What Mr. Klaus is saying is that the inconvenience to wealthy white people who may or may not live in Durham actually outweighs the extraordinary benefit that the light rail will have for communities of color and low-income families in Durham. Where is Durham’s leadership in all of this? Where is the activist community? Where is Durham CAN? Where is the Durham People’s Alliance? Where is the Durham Committee? And why isn’t anyone fighting for the thousands of jobs this thing will create, the affordable housing plans around stations that have taken so much effort, and the reconnection of NCCU and Hayti to downtown? Where is the real Durham when we need it?

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