Railroad wants $7.1 million for Durham Beltline trail

jwise@newsobserver.comSeptember 15, 2013 

Hopes for turning the no-longer-used Duke Beltline into a greenway have met another rebuff from the Norfolk Southern Railway.

Durham trail lovers and city officials had hoped the railroad would offer the city a discount price for the 2.25-mile corridor, if not make an outright donation. But City Manager Tom Bonfield said the asking price has actually gone up – to $7.1 million.

“It does not appear that the City has much leverage at this point to persuade Norfolk Southern to a different conclusion,” Bonfield said, in an email to trail supporters.

“I was pretty upset about that,” said Reynolds Smith, one of Durham’s Open Space and Trails Commission members who began reviving grassroots interest in the Beltline trail last winter.

As Durham’s greenways expanded and gained popularity, interest developed in adding the Beltline corridor to the system. The corridor runs north from West Village, crosses above Trinity Avenue, then turns east through the Duke Park and Old North Durham neighborhoods to Avondale Drive.

Built in 1892 to serve the Duke (later Liggett & Myers) tobacco factory, the Beltline is now owned by Norfolk Southern but has been unused since the mid-1990s. With overgrown tracks and littered roadbed, the line has become an urban eyesore.

In 2005, Norfolk Southern appeared ready to sell the right of way – through town and north as far as Timberlake – to the city, county and N.C. Department of Transportation for $6 million. The railroad then changed its mind, for reasons of its own, and the idea remained in limbo until a few months ago.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell, Duke University President Richard Brodhead, former UNC system president and White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, among others, joined an effort to persuade Norfolk Southern to reconsider. In April, railroad executives informed Bell they were “willing to negotiate.”

But when Bell, Bonfield and city Transportation Director Mark Ahrendsen met Norfolk Southern real-estate officials in August, they were told the railroad had had its property reappraised and wanted $7.1 million for the section from West Village to Avondale Drive alone.

Bonfield said the railroad might be willing to lease the 2.25-mile right-of-way to the city for up to 10 years – “at a calculated rate based in value and Norfolk Southern’s internal formula.”

“We thought they were going to look at it differently,” Smith said.

Smith said he was “very disappointed,” but “I don’t see just immediately giving up. ... The idea’s not going away.”

Wise: 919-641-5895

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