Proposed changes around the Blackwell/Mangum light rail station.

You may have read our story a few weeks ago about some proposed changes to the Durham-Orange Light Rail line — including an idea to close the railroad crossing at Blackwell and Pettigrew streets downtown to traffic — and a forthcoming environmental assessment describing the changes GoTriangle has in mind along the eighteen-mile route.

That document has been released for public comment, and the proposal to close the crossing continues to draw concerns.

The Supplemental Environmental Assessment describes impacts of track and station modifications on trails, open spaces and historic sites.

The proposed changes include:

  • Modification to the station platform lengths.
  • Adjustments to the location and configuration of the station platforms, as well as corresponding refinements to the track alignments.
  • Modifications to the planned park-and-ride lots.
  • Inclusion of bicycle and pedestrian facilities throughout the project.
  • Elevation of the alignment on Erwin Road.
  • Inclusion of drainage, grading and site preparation throughout the project.
  • Modifications to the roadway along Pettigrew Street and Alston Avenue and adjacent roadways.
  • Addition of a station at Blackwell and Mangum streets.

The proposal to close the Blackwell Street crossing has raised concerns that doing so would cut off the American Tobacco Campus, the Durham Performing Arts Center and the Durham Bulls stadium from downtown. Previously, plans for light rail did not include a station between Blackwell and Mangum Streets because the platform length would have adversely affected the Old Bull building, which is a national historic landmark. Planners have since scaled down platforms to the length of two cars instead of three and commissioners have approved the addition of what’s been called the DPAC station or the Blackwell/Mangum Station.

John Tallmadge, interim light rail project manager, told the INDY that the running the light rail line along existing rail tracks would require raising Blackwell Street by about five to seven feet so that vehicles driving over the tracks don’t get stuck. This runs the risk of impacting the Old Bull and creating an awkward height differential between the street and the sidewalk. Instead, GoTriangle is proposing to close the rail crossing to traffic and install a “pedestrian bridge that would serve as a signature civic space.”

GoTriangle says both closing the crossing and building a pedestrian bridge are still proposals at this point, subject to public input. Still, leaders from the American Tobacco Campus, the Durham Performing Arts Center and the Durham Bulls worry “a mere ‘pedestrian  bridge’ cannot and will not ensure the access that has helped drive downtown’s resurgence,” so they wrote to stakeholders for the project, including the Durham City Council.

Since the INDY’s last story on the design proposal, Downtown Durham Inc. and the East Coast Greenway Alliance have also raised concerns, while affirming their support for light rail.

Downtown Durham Inc. encouraged GoTriangle to explore alternatives to closing the crossing and, if closing it can’t be avoided, to hold a design competition to create an “innovative solution that goes beyond merely addressing the movement of people but that also delivers an iconic creation that flawlessly connects downtown.”

“This is the most significant pedestrian and cyclist crossing in downtown Durham today, due to the heavy vehicle traffic on other roads and the uninviting Chapel Hill Street and Roxboro Road underpasses,” DDI board chair Jessica Brock and CEO Nicole J. Thompson wrote in a letter to Tallmadge. “… DDI board and staff strongly believe that any outcome that closes this crossing must be replaced by a signature civic space that provides a high quality and high capacity pedestrian and bicycle crossing. To ensure the needed mitigation is of a sufficient level, GoTriangle should both commit more construction funding and add a task that would incorporate design concepts from invited firms operating through a design competition format.”

The crossing “provides a critical connection along the East Coast Greenway, linking the planned Durham Belt Line Trail and the Downtown Trail with the American Tobacco Trail, which connects to the expansive greenway networks of Cary and Raleigh,” wrote Dennis Markatos-Soriano and Kathryn Zeringue, with the East Coast Greenway Alliance. The East Coast Greenway will be a three thousand mile greenway from Maine to Florida. In the Triangle, it will span four counties, connecting cities and trails along the way.

“Although not a prominent vehicular corridor, the Blackwell/Corcoran St crossing is a significant north-south link in the Triangle’s regional Greenway network, which is the most connected metro area along the entire East Coast Greenway,” the ECGA wrote to Tallmadge. “Therefore, we strongly encourage GoTriangle to carefully consider the transportation impacts of this closure on the bicycle and pedestrian commuters using this crossing daily. We urge GoTriangle to provide safe and convenient biking and walking access at the Blackwell/Corcoran Street crossing by incorporating the proposed pedestrian and bicycle bridge into the station design. We also encourage GoTriangle to invest in meaningful and equitable community engagement around the proposed bridge design.”

 GoTriangle is taking public comments on the proposed design changes — including plans for the Blackwell crossing —through November 30. You can flip through this easy to read explanation of the proposals and leave comments online or attend the following meetings:

Saturday, November 3

Noon to two p.m.

SpringHill Suites

5310 McFarland Drive, Durham

Monday, November 5

Five to seven p.m.

Extraordinary Ventures

200 South Elliott Road, Chapel Hill

Thursday, November 8

Five to seven p.m.

Monument of Faith Church

900 Simmons Street, Durham