Timing tight for decision on Durham railroad crossings downtown

jwise@newsobserver.comOctober 15, 2013 

  • Public hearing

    The City Council holds a public hearing on the “Traffic Separation Study” and its recommendations during its next meeting, 7 p.m. Monday in the Council Chambers, City Hall. Anyone wishing to speak may sign up before the meeting begins.

    The study is available at bit.ly/19wUHeB.

On the one hand, City Council members aren’t comfortable with what consultants have suggested to improve the railroad crossings downtown.

On the other, the city needs to get moving on the one that’s the most extensive, most expensive, potentially most controversial – and potentially most beneficial.

Such were the mixed messages left by the council’s conversation last week on a “Grade Separation Study” for the North Carolina Railroad corridor. The general public has a chance to chime in Monday night.

Council members weren’t ready to endorse the 12 major projects the study recommends for grade crossings along the 12.7-mile rail corridor running southeast-northwest across Durham County. They were particularly hesitant about closing grade crossings that could remove pedestrian access across the tracks.

But there is a chance to get state financing to build the Blackwell/Corcoran and Mangum street crossings if enough details get settled and the council acts before a January deadline.

“The study does give us a good springboard to start entering into the state funding (process) at an auspicious time,” Councilman Steve Schewel said.

No. 1 priority

In its current form, the study ( bit.ly/19wUHeB) advises major changes at 13 of the 18 grade crossings along the corridor: closing three and building pedestrian underpasses; and converting the others to over- or underpasses.

The Corcoran/Blackwell and Mangum street project is the study’s No. 1 priority. There, engineers with the Kimley-Horn consulting firm suggest excavations to put the streets under railroad tracks that would be raised 10 feet above the level they’ve lain for 158 years.

The proposal also involves lowering Pettigrew and Ramseur streets to intersect Blackwell/Corcoran and Mangum, building the required retaining walls and rebuilding the Roxboro Street bridge.

Downtown interests have long seen the Corcoran/Blackwell crossing in particular as an impediment to the city center’s revitalization, creating a barrier between the Downtown Loop and the DPAC, DBAP and American Tobacco districts. That situation will only get worse with the anticipated addition of high-speed passenger trains and Triangle Transit’s commuter lines, said Wes Parham, the city’s assistant transportation director.

Currently, 14 trains a day run through downtown; new passenger traffic could raise that to 162, according to the study.

“Mobility downtown is going to be dictated by whether we have grade separation (at Blackwell/Corcoran and Mangum) or not and therefore, for the viability of everything downtown, to go ahead and identify the project and the funding sources to make this come together” is important, Parham said.

The estimated cost for Corcoran/Blackwell and Mangum is $43 million. The estimated cost for all 12 projects is $161 million. The fact that Durham’s projects affect rail freight traffic, along with passenger rail, street and pedestrian traffic, gives Durham an opening into the state’s new tiered transportation funding formula that favors freight.

Just to be considered among other projects from across North Carolina means making application soon after the first of the year. The downtown crossings project, and anything else among the study’s recommendations, needs City Council support to be competitive, but the hearing and considering of official and public feedback means a final version of the Traffic Separation Study and its projects won’t be ready for council acceptance before December.

“Time is short here in terms of making an ultimate decision … (about) what are we going to do,” Parham said.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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