Triangle Transit proposes major changes to light rail in Durham | Durham County | Indy Week
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Triangle Transit proposes major changes to light rail in Durham 

Under an amended transit plan, Pettigrew Street, which runs along existing Amtrak and freight lines, would accommodate light rail, buses and cars.

Photo by Justin Cook

Under an amended transit plan, Pettigrew Street, which runs along existing Amtrak and freight lines, would accommodate light rail, buses and cars.

A turf dispute with the North Carolina Railroad Company has forced Triangle Transit to reconfigure part of its proposed light-rail route in Durham, including the segment downtown.

The changes would affect about three miles of the route, from east of Duke Hospital on Erwin Road through downtown and on to Alston Avenue. Triangle Transit presented the proposed changesalthough there could be morebefore the County Commissioners and City Council Tuesday morning.

The new map was not available online Tuesday afternoon at press time, but the major changes involve running the rail line off N.C. Railroad Company property.

"You've been nimble to move out of the North Carolina Railroad corridor," Councilman Steve Schewel told Triangle Transit officials. "But we shouldn't sugarcoat the pill. We're doing this because of the recalcitrance of the North Carolina Railroad."

David King, CEO and general manager of Triangle Transit, sounded more forgiving. "The North Carolina Railroad is trying to protect their assets," King said. "We do not see the world through the same lens."

Railroad Company officials were not available for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Update: After the INDY's press deadline, the Railroad Company issued this statement: The North Carolina Railroad Company has been working closely with the Triangle Transit Authority on their Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project with the goal of preserving current and future freight and passenger rail service, including potential commuter rail. The light rail system TTA is pursing will be on a dedicated guideway for regulatory and safety reasons. Federal regulations prevent the proposed system from sharing tracks with heavy freight and passenger trains. We appreciate the relationship we have with TTA, and we are committed to working with all of the communities along the NCRR corridor."

However, the new plan does address several widespread concerns about the route's impact, particularly downtown. The original proposal called for the railroad tracks to be raised at Blackwell and Mangum streets, creating what has become known as "The Great Wall of Durham."

That would have amputated American Tobacco Campus. the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the Durham Performing Arts Center from the Central Business District.

Other major changes and their ramifications include:

• At Anderson Street, the rail line would become elevated and travel, not alongside, but over N.C. 147 to the Ninth Street station.

• Pettigrew Street, which runs along the existing rail lines, would be closed between Case Street, a stub near Sam's Quik Stop, to Swift Avenue and a few blocks eastward. Businesses along that section of Pettigrew would need different access.

• The Buchanan Station would move farther south of Smith Warehouse to avoid the train traveling near the historic building.

• The downtown Durham station, originally proposed for Duke and Chapel Hill streets, will move to near the bus station. This would allowsfor connectivity between bus and train riders. It also moves the station closer to DPAC, a four-minute walk, and the American Tobacco Campus, about two minutes.

• Pettigrew Street, from the bus station to Dillard Street, would become a "transit way." Light rail would use one lane, buses another and cars a third. Buses and cars could travel only eastward. (There was no discussion of bike lanes Tuesday morning.)

While this would significantly alter a major east-west thoroughfare, one of the few in central Durham, it could also lay the groundwork for a two-way Downtown Loop. Many downtown businesses and residents have been advocating for that change.

Once out of downtown, Pettigrew Street is wide enough to accommodate both light rail and two way bus/car traffic.

• The Alston Street station is closer to North Carolina Central University, although it is still a 10-12 minute walk.

Previously, Durham Area Designers, a group of urban planners, architects and developers, had suggested building a station near DPAC as a gateway to the city. However, Patrick McDonough, Triangle Transit manager of planning and transit-oriented development, said under the new configuration, an extra station—or eliminating the Durham one—wouldn't be necessary or feasible.

"If we discontinue the Durham station, we disconnect the synergy," McDonough said, as the whistle of the Amtrak sounded outside. "If we have both stations, then the ridership subdivides itself."

Since Triangle Transit will not have to raise the railroad grade, this plan could be cheaper than the original, although cost estimates are not yet available.

Th next steps include public engagement sessions in April or May to take comment on the new route. These comments will be considered as part of the federally required Environmental Impact Statement, which is due in just 13 months, an eye blink considering the scale of the project.

The Metropolitan Planning Organization will also have to formally amend its transportation plan to eliminate the requirement of raising the railroad tracks.

City planners will likely have to reconfigure some of their affordable housing estimates, which they based on the original route. Last May, City Council and County Commissioner passed a resolution calling for 15 percent of all housing within a half-mile of transit stations to be affordable. Just last week, the Joint City-County Planning Committee received data on existing affordable housing and the potential for creating more.

Dan Jewell, president of Durham Area Designers, noted that the city should be mindful that it is grappling with decisions local leaders made about the railroad 150 years ago.

"Any changes we make will likely be here 100 years from now," Jewell said. "Our heirs will judge us by what we do."

Lisa Sorg is the INDY editor. Reach her at

  • Parts of Pettigrew Street could close, become one-way

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