Remember all that hubbub about potentially closing Blackwell Street to accommodate the Durham-Orange Light Rail line?
GoTriangle, the public transit agency leading the project, plans to tunnel the rail line underneath downtown Durham instead. The proposal keeps Blackwell Street open and eliminates interaction between the railroads, car traffic and the light rail at the street crossing.
The agreement was reached during a meeting Thursday and sent off to the Federal Transit Administration today, according to a press release from GoTriangle. GoTriangle is in the process of applying for grant funding from the FTA to cover about half of the $2.47 billion project. Because of a deadline imposed by the state legislature to have all non-state funding for the project committed by November 30, 2019, GoTriangle needs to finish the federal funding application process by April, with the hope of having a federal funding commitment in September.
FTA asked for a solution to design challenges at the Blackwell Street railroad crossing today; The issue had been a factor in why GoTriangle has not yet finalized agreements with Duke University and Norfolk Southern railroad.
GoTriangle discovered that the Blackwell Street rail crossing – near Pettigrew Street – may have to be closed about halfway through the design process after realizing vehicles might get stuck trying to cross the rail tracks. Planners ruled out raising the street to be more level with the tracks because doing so would impact the Old Bull building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. So, GoTriangle proposed closing the crossing to traffic and installing a pedestrian bridge that would serve as a “signature civic space” to move pedestrians and cyclists over the train.
But that drew consternation from the likes of the Durham Performing Arts Center, the Durham Bulls and American Tobacco, which worried about being cut off from downtown’s central business district. Those concerns were echoed by Duke University, which GoTriangle is also negotiating with over the alignment of the line near the university hospital system.
Two people resigned from the board of GoTransit Partners (which is tasked with raising $102.5 million toward the project) over the proposal: Brad Bringer, chairman of advertising firm McKinney, which has an office on Blackwell Street, and Michael Goodmon, an executive with Capitol Broadcasting, which owns WRAL, the Durham Bulls and the American Tobacco campus. Norfolk Southern, which operates the North Carolina Rail Road corridor through downtown also expressed concerns about the rail alignment through downtown interfering with its operations.
“We gathered fifty downtown stakeholders together on Thursday, and there was strong support in the group for the tunnel taking the light rail under Blackwell and Mangum Streets. We’ll be incurring significant costs with this solution, but it will allow us to get the light rail built, and that’s crucial for our region over the next 100 years,” Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said in the GoTriangle press release.
With the tunnel, a planned station in front of DPAC would be located underground, Wendy Jacobs, chairperson of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, told the INDY, although the specific design is pending. She said the goal of Thursday’s meeting was to find a solution that kept Blackwell open to all mobility, addressed Norfolk Southern’s safety concerns and had minimal impact on the Old Bull building.
“This appears to be an excellent solution that not only maintains the existing street network in the area but minimizes the impact on the appearance of the Old Bull building at a design pinch point,” Durham County Commissioner and GoTriangle Board Chair Ellen Reckhow said in the press release.
GoTriangle “will now work with its partners to meet the environmental and railroad requirements necessary to confirm the tunnel is a viable option and to identify additional funding for this project change.”
“The budget will be a challenge,” Jacobs told the INDY. “The city and county will have to look at what our approach is going to be. What we have a precedent for is the fact that the city and county have invested in major infrastructure for economic development purposes over the past number of years… Having the light rail downtown and doing it the right way so that it keeps Blackwell Street open and has a station in the heart of downtown, these are critical for economic development for the city.”
Update: GoTriangle has released additional details about the tunnel proposal it submitted to the FTA. Under the proposal, the light rail would go under Duke Street, return to at grade near Durham Station, then tunnel under Blackwell and Mangum streets, resurfacing near Roxboro Street. It would then travel over Dillard and Fayetteville streets via bridge. GoTriangle estimates the costs of this work at about $68 million (in 2018 dollars) and says the work won’t impact the project’s overall timeline. 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.
info and a map in the presentation below:
PRES FTA Tunnel Submittal by Sarah on Scribd
It costs $800-$900 million per mile to construct underground rail (https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2018/01/why-its-so-expensive-to-build-urban-rail-in-the-us/551408/). The feds might pay for half of it, but both the state and Orange County have capped their contribution, so at least half the additional cost—hundreds of millions of dollars—will need to come from Durham taxpayers or some other source. Where will they find the money? This might be a good time for Durham city and county residents to ask their elected officials to take another look at whether an alternative, less costly mass transit technology, such as bus rapid transit, could be a more effective use of public funds. If it’s good enough for Wake County, it’s good enough for Durham. As the proverb says, no matter how far you have walked down a wrong road, turn back.
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