With the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project more than 50 percent designed, the need for some route changes has become apparent. To that end, over the next few weeks, GoTriangle, the transit agency spearheading the not-yet-fully-funded project, will release a host of proposals.
Among them: closing to traffic the railroad crossing where Blackwell Street becomes Corcoran Street—raising concerns that the American Tobacco Campus, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and Durham Performing Arts Center could be cut off from the vibrant downtown they helped to create.
Light rail has “the potential to create immense opportunity and economic growth,” American Tobacco Campus development director Mark Stanford, Durham Bulls vice president Mike Birling, and DPAC general manager Bob Klaus wrote in a recent letter to the Durham City Council. “But,” they continued, “in its current, and recently altered, form, the plan will undoubtedly damage our thriving city center … from the downtown core. And so, here we, as a community, should pause to seek a sharper vision.”
GoTriangle has already spent about $90 million developing the line, which will run about eighteen miles from UNC-Chapel Hill through downtown Durham to N.C. Central. The proposed route alterations come as project developers try to hit tight deadlines imposed by the state legislature and seek a federal grant for half of the $2.47 billion price tag.
The prospect of light rail cleaving the central business district and the American Tobacco area first arose in 2015, when plans for a “city center” station near DPAC were floated. The problem: Running the line along existing rail tracks would require planners to raise Blackwell Street by about five to seven feet so that vehicles driving over the tracks don’t get stuck. But raising the street would create an awkward height differential between the street, the sidewalk, and the adjacent Old Bull building, a national historic landmark, says John Tallmadge, interim director of the light rail project.
Instead—as part of a new environmental assessment GoTriangle intends to release in early November—GoTriangle has proposed as one possible solution installing a “pedestrian bridge that would serve as a signature civic space.”
In their letter, Stanford, Birling, and Klaus argued that “the use of the term ‘pedestrian bridge’ is concerning as the image it conjures falls far short of the kind of open and inviting connectivity that a truly great downtown requires.” They suggested delaying light rail construction to ensure it’s done right. (On behalf of the trio, Stanford declined an interview request, saying the letter speaks for itself.)
Tallmadge says the bridge concept will firm up over the next few months following a public input and design process, but the intent is to create “a place people actually want to come and be, not just walk across”—perhaps to watch the sunset over the city skyline.
While GoTriangle is exploring alternatives for the Blackwell crossing, elevating the line there or running it underground could be cost-prohibitive and trigger a lengthy environmental study that would throw off the timeline. “That leaves us little time to do radically different solutions,” Tallmadge says.
Even with the pedestrian bridge, eliminating the Blackwell crossing means vehicular traffic would have to be reconfigured downtown. To remedy that, another proposal in the forthcoming assessment suggests converting the lower portion of the downtown loop—Ramseur from Chapel Hill to Dillard Street—to two-way traffic. The city plans to eventually make the entire loop two-way.
Overall, Tallmadge says, GoTriangle’s proposed changes aim to improve safety, traffic flow, and access to stations, and some will save money. They include designing the new station near DPAC; elevating a portion of the line on Erwin Road to not interfere with Duke University hospital access, emergency vehicles, and a utility line serving the medical complex; and realigning infrastructure at the Gateway, Patterson Place, and Alston Avenue stations.
All of this planning has to fit into GoTriangle’s timeline for seeking $1.2 billion in federal funding and $190 million in state funding. The state budget passed this summer requires the agency to have commitments for $1 billion in local funding by April 30. That includes tax and fee revenue from Durham and Orange Counties as well as the proceeds of a private fundraising effort to collect $102 million in land and cash donations. Earlier this month, Tallmadge announced the nonprofit GoTransit Partners had secured land donations from UNC and N.C. Central along the route totaling about $14 million.
GoTriangle plans to submit its final application for federal funding in April (previously, the agency planned to apply before the end of 2018), with the hope of getting a commitment in September. Per state law, federal funding must be secured by November 30, 2019. If GoTriangle doesn’t hit these deadlines, the project will be removed from current and future consideration for what has been a shrinking contribution from the state.
Factoring in all of these changes, there’s about a 20 percent contingency built into the light rail budget. Tallmadge says GoTriangle is comfortable with that, but that the Federal Transit Administration will conduct a review of plans next month and make its own recommendation on how much of a contingency is needed.
In the meantime, GoTriangle will seek public input on all the proposals in the new environmental assessment, specifically regarding what to do with the Blackwell crossing. But delaying the project—as Klaus, Stanford, and Birling asked—is simply “not an option,” Mayor Steve Schewel responded to them.
“To delay it is to kill it for many, many years and to put Durham and our region behind every other urban region in the nation in terms of rail transportation in the next twenty years,” Schewel wrote. “… But just as delaying our application is not an option, neither is it an option to fail to create a signature civic space for the Blackwell-Corcoran crossing.”
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