TBJ marks the Bull City's most dangerous intersections
TBJ: Somerhill liquidation auction on Sept. 11?

BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for August 31, 2010

It's a Raleigh story, but it's one Durhamites need to be paying attention to: the opposition swelling up in urban City of Oaks neighborhoods over the state and federal government's high-speed rail proposal linking Raleigh and Richmond.

The corridor will use largely-deserted tracks between the two state capitals, but will tie in to the existing downtown Raleigh rail yard and surrounding access lines. And the alternatives that have been on the tables for years are drumming up neighborhood opposition over noise and permanent street closings to minimize car/rail and pedestrian/rail accidents.

Of course, the progressive communities near downtown Raleigh understand high-speed rail is a good thing and want to see it come to town. And that's where the intriguing idea comes in: an alternative being pushed by ad hoc neighbor groups that would create an elevated rail line flyover above Capital Boulevard, avoiding the toughest takings and keeping the largest number of street crossings open.

The idea comes from residents -- not the state, which so far is cool to the idea. But the quickly arising and now white-hot battle, which is being best covered by the Indy's Bob Geary (#1, #2), has great relevance to us in the Bull City.

The SEHSR project doesn't end in Raleigh; that high-speed rail line on existing tracks will run through to Durham, Greensboro and Charlotte, and perhaps someday Atlanta. And when SEHSR comes to the Bull City, we're likely going to be faced with requests to permanently close Blackwell St. and Mangum St. downtown -- effectively cutting off the city center and American Tobacco districts.

If Raleigh is able to get things rolling on an elevated viaduct for rail, it makes the odds of Durham and other large communities getting similar treatment much better.

More news beyond the jump.

DHA Sells Complex: The Woodridge Commons apartments on Sedgefield St. near Northgate Mall is set for sale from the Durham Housing Authority to Bob Schmitz, a notable local landlord. The sale price (under $900k) represents a 25% discount off tax value, but the early-80s complex is in rotten shape and the DHA's consultant says they're luck to get this much. (See this earlier story for more on Schmitz.) (Herald-Sun)

More on Potti: Ongoing investigations into a Duke cancer researcher are underway; the first, a scan of the researcher's education, awards and background, turned up what a university report calls "issues of substantial concern" and resulting consequences. Two additional reviews are underway on the researcher. The matter started after outside researchers raised concerns over the research data and analysis performed by Anil Potti; more than a hundred cancer patients are enrolled in trials based on those questioned findings. (Herald-Sun -- and check out the Duke Chronicle for the most complete ongoing coverage)

DCVB Morphs Film Regionally: The DCVB -- long a local pioneer for having a film office and support for broadcast and movie productions in-house -- is working with a local production company involved with last year's "Main Street" film shoot to bootstrap a Triangle-wide film commission helping to bring productions to the broader 13-county region. The DCVB will transfer a position to the new organization and provide seed funding. (N&O)

Football Preview: The H-S' Steve Wiseman has a quite-compelling feature on Tevin Hood, a walk-on defensive lineman arriving at Duke this fall. A finalist for a National Merit Scholarship, Hood passed up athletic scholarship offers at lesser lights for a non-scholarship shot at Duke, placing academics first at the campus where his mother graduated in 1991. The story also details Hood's distant relationship with his father, former NFL player Eric Swann. (Herald-Sun)

Comments

Natalie

There was a push several years ago by Norfolk Southern (I beleive) to close those intersections in Downtown Durham.
Worst case scenario- but if that were to happen, how could NCDOT maintain their crucial levels of service on the southern route of 15-501 (Mangum St)?

MP

I'd be OK with closing Blackwell & Mangum across the tracks if adequate bike & pedestrian bridges or tunnels were placed over the tracks and vehicular capacity was improved on Roxboro & Chapel Hill. My preference would be for bridges assuming they are well-designed and reflect Durham's creative nature. If they were to be only run-of-the-mill bridges, I'd opt for tunnels.

Cormoran

Yes please no trains, they are useless.Why don't we invest in car catapults?

The whole world has been building this trains through cities, cities with urban cores a hundred times Raleigh's. A mix of bridges an tunnels will solve most of the problem. And noise? The train is way less noisier than any highway.

Rob Gillespie

@MP-
That could work, but it would require a lot of improvements to make the passage feel more traveled. As it stands now, there are far too many "dead zones" walking around downtown.

Start at 9th St, for example, and walk to the DPAC. You pass by East Campus, which has no pedestrian life along Main St. After Brightleaf, you pass through the West Village parking lots/old DATA station/the loop/Southbank building. Although West Village is getting more foot traffic at night, it is still a no-man's land in those parking lots. You again hit this problem when you turn south on Corcoran/Blackwell toward the DPAC and cross the tracks.

Maybe a tunnel would be no worse than what the crossing is now. I'm worried, though, that if downtown fails to become more inviting and pedestrian friendly, that we're not going to see the area fully evolve into a vibrant retail and entertainment district. We have spots that will not see congregations of activity, because they are giant parking lots or fields. What we need to do is make these areas seem like they have activity by targeting landscaping and lighting improvements to them. Think in terms of pulling the interior of Ambacco, with its string lights and beautiful lawns, out to these areas. More public art, perhaps focused on Durham's history, would help too.

I'm still holding out, though, for our ice rink and pedestrian plaza in the sky that I saw floated in a DDI mast plan a few years back.

JG

Being from France, this story reminds me of a quote from a French transport minister about the French High Speed Rail called TGV :

Le probleme avec le TGV c'est que tout le monde veut la gare mais personne ne veut les rails.

The problem with the TGV is that everybody wants the station but nobody wants the tracks.

I still don't understand why they are insisting in putting the train station downtown where few people leave.

Most people with a high enough income to afford a High Speed Train ticket live in the suburbs (or outside the urban core) like Cary, North Raleigh, Chapel Hill or Southwest Durham and work in another suburb (RTP, Centennial Campus, Cary etc....)

Why not put the train station next to the airport and create a large transportation hub?

The airport is easily accessible from Durham with NC 147 and I 40 and from Raleigh with, I 40, I 540 and I 440 and the future Triangle expressway.

This way we would have one only stop for the Triangle (which shortens the travel time) and avoid damaging newly revitalized areas.


Boxcar Willie

It's the North Carolina Railroad that's trying to get Blackwell closed. We need grade-separated crossings now, let alone with high-speed trains cutting downtown in half.

The East End Connector should be open by then, and will help alleiviate through-traffic, but we need grade-separated crossings in any scenario.

GreenLantern

Closing Blackwell has absolutely no bearing on connectivity, as most of the through traffic and downtown traffic already run on Roxboro, Alston, W. Chapel Hill, 9th, Gregson, and Hillandale, all of which have underpasses. If some of the at-grade crossings such as Duke, Elizabeth, Ellis, Swift, Fayetteville, and Mangum were closed, I could see a significant hardship for motorists. Blackwell is not really critical for motorists, that if it were closed and replaced with a pedestrian bridge or tunnel, people could still make a very short walk from downtown in-loop to the DPAC, DBAP, or American Tobacco. Roxboro and W. Chapel Hill are just a block or two away. I would be nice to have those underpasses widened and upgraded as part of any redesign however.

As I pointed out before, the East End Connector isn't going to be the holy-grail option many think to give commuters an alternative to thoroughfares such as Duke, Roxboro, Hillandale, etc. If you were to take all the traffic that currently use these roads off and put them on the EEC, the traffic back up on I85 from the off-ramps to Roxboro, Duke, and Hillandale would be immense and totally unsafe, as the sheer volume of traffic moving north from the EEC would overtax the ability of the northern light-controlled routes to handle it all. People will still need the current routes through central Durham. If the railroad chooses to close any of these critical routes instead of building underpasses to take care of the traffic, we don't want to support high-speed rail--which some, as in Raleigh are now seeing as NOT a benefit to locals.

JG: The theory behind high-speed rail around here is not for commuters going from suburb to airport or downtown, but to offer an alternative to air travel between the larger cities. In some cases, I could see a lot of riders that live in Richmond but work in DC. or live in Greensboro and work in Durham. It will be interesting to see if the billions spent on such a system will make enough money to pay for itself, as rail travel is already far more expensive on Amtrak that a comparable plane ticket from Charlotte to DC, not to mention all the stops in small towns to pick up a few riders.

Rob: I don't understand your reasoning about getting more activity downtown without providing more parking. Perhaps you see only the downtown residents being allowed to enjoy downtown activity, but without more parking decks which seem to be despised by some here, you won't get the vibrant scent you're looking for. Have you tried to find a space along Main Street to park a car on a Friday night, or the same at Brightleaf? Business consider available parking during their busiest hours in deciding where to locate. If there's no abundance of parking that decks provide, not many new places are going to risk starting up in the area. That was part of the reason downtowns failed in the latter half of the century, because many of the major department stores couldn't compete with the free parking in the suburbs.

Furthermore, I wish some of the posters here would consider the rest of us who don't live or can't afford to live downtown as wanting to be part of the "downtown scene" without being treated like second class citizens. Many of us want the same things you enjoy that millions of dollars of our money you've spent on "OUR" downtown neighborhood, but with alternatives that don't seek to keep outsiders out--like bitchin' about parking decks.

Rob Gillespie

@GreenLantern-
When I have ever 'bitched' about parking decks? Nowhere in my post did I advocate for the removal of downtown parking spaces. That's why I emphasized making these giant empty areas more inviting through landscaping and lighting. I agree with you, though. It would be great to see the vast swaths of empty land that are parking lots be replaced by an equivalent number of spaces in structured parking.

For what it's worth, I've never seen the Corcoran, City Center, or W Chapel Hill St decks full at night. Not even on DPAC nights. As long as you're out past 7:00, these lots are free. Park in one of these decks and take the BCC wherever you want to go. That's the point of having it. You can even walk. There's also a garage that's free (on non-event nights) right next to Durham Station. Not to mention the abundant on-street parking around Durham Station. You're creating a problem where one doesn't exist.

GreenLantern

Sorry, Rob, I wasn't talking to you specifically about parking decks. I was responding to your desire to have a more vibrant downtown if Blackwell was closed by the railroad, as though there were no other options to keep the downtown strong without it. Others have posted about not having more parking decks, presumably because of aesthetic or other reasons.

The measure of need for parking isn't solely defined by whether or not a deck is full, but how many and where they are located. If you don't have a good supply of parking near a high-concentration of business, such as Brightleaf, it limits how much more vibrant the place will get from a pure business perspective. I think that's why Greenfire is proposing to wrap around some downtown parking decks rather than eliminating them for high-rises or other mixed-use that doesn't account for people who use cars. There are just a lot of people who don't want to walk a long way to their cars at night in downtown Durham, or Raleigh for that matter.

Michael Bacon

"rail travel is already far more expensive on Amtrak that a comparable plane ticket from Charlotte to DC"

Put the combustible intoxicant pipe down, man. I took Amtrack business class to DC in the spring, and I think it was $68 each way. Get a business class ticket for that on an airline. (It was also the most pleasant travel experience I've had in years. If you have the time to take the long way around through Jim Hunt land, it's totally worth it.)

but back to Kevin's point at the top.... (contd...)

Michael Bacon

I'm putting this in a separate comment, because I want to emphasize it. Really, I'm convinced this is a bigger issue than anyone is realizing right now.

HIGH SPEED RAIL WILL DESTROY PEDESTRIAN CONNECTIVITY DOWNTOWN UNLESS WE DO SOMETHING.

I'm all in favor of high speed rail. I can't wait to take it, to be able to take the Bull City Connector to the station and jump on and go. (And JG, I'm not sure why you think the folks in West Village paying $1600/month can't afford a high speed train ticket.) However, the corridor bisects our downtown, crossing every major north-south commuting route, with grade separation only at a few places. DOT and the Durham Transportation Department's solution every time I've talked to them was to do basically what happens at Chapel Hill St. and Roxboro St. Effectively, a big dip in the road, followed by a big incline, with concrete walls around you and rail overhead.

I strongly believe that at least two tracks of rail, including the high speed track, need to be elevated for just over two miles through downtown, from Alston to Campus drive. (4.75 miles from Lasalle to Driver would be optimal, but much more expensive obviously.) This would not only alleviate the traffic issues, but it would create the possibility for a massive urban boulevard that could unite, rather than divide, the two sides of downtown.

Even if we can't afford this, I'd love to see SOME sign that somebody in the city has given some consideration to the consequences of the increased rail travel through the city.

JG

Well, all studies conducted in Europe have demonstrated that if the train ride is below 3 hours, people will prefer the train to an airplane.

Above, 3 hours most travellers will prefer flying.

So if you follow this logic, adding a bunch of little stops to a high speed line does not really make sense. Two to three stops per state are more than enough. Here in NC, we should only have one stop in Charlotte, one for the Triad and one in the Triangle. More than that does not make sense to me. The travel time will be too long.

But cutting newly revitelized downtowns in two seem like a REALLY bad idea.

Kevin Davis

@Michael -- I am glad you raised this. I will say that everyone should go to the Indy articles and look at the beautiful elevated train platforms, used for preserving street level connectivity and for onboarding of Amtrak and commuter trains, in use or proposed in California and other places.  I am not sold on 2-4 miles being needed, but could see a multimile elevated train viaduct actually making downtown more attractive, not less.

JG

@ Micheal Bacon (And JG, I'm not sure why you think the folks in West Village paying $1600/month can't afford a high speed train ticket.)

Sure but that's the minority of the people living downtown or north of the Freeway.

Most of the other folks live south of the Duke Campus.

LB45

Elevated ROW usually costs big time dollars. You could blow your entire state budget/share of the funding before you get out of Downtown Raleigh, much less do the same for Durham. Don't forget every two bit town between Richmond and Charlotte is going to want the same thing. No one wants their town cut up by crossing closings.

Also you have to keep in mind that for the stretch between Raleigh and Charlotte will be shared by freight trains as well as "high speed"* trains. Those freights don't like sudden elevation changes or major elevation differences between the front,middle, and back of the train.

I love the quote from the TGV guy. It's going to apply in spades around here.

*Should be in the 125-150mph range. That takes a lot more than you might think infrastructure wise. It would require class 6 or class 7 track standards and the associated signaling. If they get 90mph to start they'll be doing good.

JS

Assume that it's coming for a moment. To me, the real question to ask ourselves is how can we (Durham) take advantage of this project?

For example, what if your buried the rail line through much of Durham? For example, start going underground just after Hillandale and then emerge over by Alston.

some benefits I saw from a quick look at google maps:
- rebuild the 9th street intersection and make that a true gateway to that area.
- fix the intersection at Broad/Swift. Already you've got traffic that sits there at those intersections.
- fix the lower underpasses at Duke & Gregson. That should save a few trucks every year.
- clean up the Chapel Hill St. intersection and better tie that area in to downtown proper. Both downtown and the Chapel Hill St. area could benefit from that.
- the vast area between Chapel Hill & S. Roxboro could be used for development or parks. That would surely help tie downtown together.

Sure it would be costly, but it seems like as the region grows it could certainly be a great step in the right direction. Compared to other regions (such as Raleigh), most of that section of the track has a nice buffer on both sides that should help limit construction costs.

On the contrary, once you build the high speed rail, forget making the changes then.

Just my .02.

tjd

I totally agree with JG's ideas.

Have one stop in Charlotte, Triad, and the Triangle.
Few stops = High speed travel.

IMO, using airport locations makes sense on many levels - not just avoiding street closing problems in downtowns.

Michael Bacon

@JG: Have you been to the downtown area recently? Trinity Park? Old North Durham? Duke Park? Old West Durham? Watts-Hillandale? The downtown lofts? Heck, even Cleveland Holloway? I feel like I'm talking to someone from Cary.

@JS: Burying is definitely preferable, but it's way more expensive, unfortunately. Underground rail works best in alluvial soils, found in cities near the mouths of rivers, where you've got basically 300 feet of packed mud under the city. Durham sits on top of gigantic granite boulders, making the tunnels much harder to dig -- it's basically impossible here. You can trench, going down 25 feet and building concrete walls on either side, but that's significantly more expensive than elevation.

The last time I looked up the cost of similar projects and projected it here, it looked like elevating the rail for 2 miles could rise above $100 million if not carefully planned.

The endpoints I picked, however, are in areas that could easily allow for 1.5% grades to reach fully elevated heights, because Campus Drive is already elevated, and sits in the middle of a long stretch with no crossings on the other side of Duke. (You could also come back down up past 15th St. just as easily). On the other side, the rail is already elevated at Alston, and there's a long stretch of no crossings coming up to Driver.

I know the cost looks insane, but if you compare it to what TTA or whatever agency will already have to spend when installing any kind of regional system, or what it would take to build a new rail bypass around the city where no ROW exists, plus the redevelopment opportunities that open up when you lift the rail off the ground, I think in the long run it's worth it. (I have a blog post that's been in my head and partially written for about 3 years about just how ridiculously amazing the possibilities are for that corridor with heavy rail up in the air.)

Todd P

The bottom line in all this is the money. If high speed rail isn't affordable, it will never be built here. The money will go to higher population, higher density areas like California.

The amount of money required to build viaducts or tunnels doesn't exist. The amount of money required to purchase new right of way to get trains out of downtown or to the airport doesn't exist. The whole reason for using the NCRR ROW currently used today by Amtrak and freight trains is because the state already owns the ROW.

A new 100' wide ROW through the Triangle could cost $50 million per mile, and far more if there happen to be any buildings on it. That's before any construction even starts.

If we want to see HSR in NC, there's going to have to be some give and take. We won't get everything we want and get HSR.

Erik Landfried

So we should go to the airport to get on a train? Interesting...

JG

@ Michael Bacon: Yes I have (I had dinner at Dos perros the other day, I frequent the Farmers Market several times a month and I do my groceries shopping at Whole Foods) but honestly beside Trinity Park, the American Tobacco Complex, Forest Hills and the downtown core, I would not want to live in the other neighborhoods that you mention and only if I could get my son into one of the good magnet schools designed to serve these areas (Watts and Morehead). I personally think that the Hope Valley area where I live has a lot more to offer to its residents than the other places that you mention (decent schools, space, safe streets to run, golf, restaurants (Fosters, Gugulph and Thai Cafe) and proximity to Southpoint, I 40 and RDU).
BTW, Nordstrom Rack opens tomorrow (Yipee!)

But again, my point here is not to discuss where one should live (it's a free country you can live where ever you want) but more to that cutting the downtown in two parts is a MAJOR mistake.
How the downtown restaurants will survive being separated from the ATC and DPAC?

To me it makes more sense to build one Unique station between Durham and Raleigh/Cary (that's why I think of the airport) and serve the cities with a lightrail or bus lines. Just as much I would rather go to RDU using a light rail than having to wait 20 minutes for the light at Airport Boulevard and park my car far away.

A lightrail or frequent bus lines would serve downtown Durham and bring the Raleigh visitors to our city without hurting the recovering economic core.

Again travel time is key. If it takes me more than 3 hours to go to DC, I would rather pay $150 to fly 45 minutes and arrive at Reagan Airport than sit on a train.

Liz Ananat

JG--I think you're missing Michael's point. He's not saying that *you* should live in one of the central-city neighborhoods. He's just saying that lots of high-income people do (which is a verifiable fact). So there's lots of nearby demand for HSR. I'd also point out that lots of high-wage earners who live in neighborhoods you mentioned, like Hope Valley, nonetheless work near downtown, at Duke, ATP, etc.--so they too are likely to find a downtown stop convenient.

All of this is kind of a moot point, anyway, given that we can't afford to buy a new right-of-way out at the airport, and are stuck with the one we have, which cuts through downtown. So I think we're back to the question of elevation.

bb

what about a kind of compromise between 2 mile elevation and the dip under dark scary tunnel solution? go with leaving the tracks at current grade, but make each "tunnel" really something beyond a tunnel - wide wide open air pass-throughs with generous room for pedestians, bike lanes, and kiosks? rather than pay for 2 miles of elevated track, pay for a quarter block of elevated track at 4 or 5 key nodes...

Freddie

All that money for high speed rail should be re-invested into the local train system we in the Triangle were supposed to have by 2006...

Like someone else mentioned, it does not make sense to take Amtrack as every time I've thought about it, it's about the same, if not more expensive to take back up North to New England to see family than a plane which gets you there in 2 hours...I would imagine traveling in high speed rail would be more...

The Tringle, especially Raleigh, needs a local commuter train line way before they need a line locals will travel maybe once a year, if that...I've seen it happen on Route 3 South to Boston from Southern New Hampshire where no matter how much you try to de-congest a highway by adding more lanes, there will always be traffic no matter how many damn lanes you put up...It's a failed system that somehow DOT throughout the country seem to recognize...Focus on alternative LOCAL travel first, then add branches to that local system.

People should look at the infrastructure guidelines Bogota, Columbia has taken in an effort to reduce crime & rebuild the city. A ton of money was spent towards pedestrian friendliness in the past 10 years there and in correlation, crime rates have decreased by 80%!!! That's huge! That was just focusing on changing the infrastructure to making it pedestrian friendly...Less cars = Happy People

patrick

Monorail, Monorail, Monorail, Monorail!!!!

Melissa Muir

Here is a link to a Herald-Sun guest column Bill Kalkhof wrote about highspeed rail and downtown durham.

It was published about 6 months ago: http://www.heraldsun.com/view/full_story/5827842/article-For-downtown-Durham--promise-of-rail-has-a--but-

tjd

If it takes more than 10 years to build a simple $6mil pedestrian bridge in this city, why does anyone think an enormous project like high speed rail is possible in our lifetime?

Chuck

Great Discussion. Thanks to Kevin for raising the issue as others have been doing for more than a year. We need to locally come to some understandings about how this can happen here and work to the benefit of our town. Bifurcating our newly emerging downtown is not an option.

Let me add just a couple of factoids or bits of info to the mix. First, a mile of interstate level hwy costs about $100 mill . . . so trenching the train through Durham may cost, based upon M.Bacon's analysis, about as much as another mile of I-540. It would not seem to be a show stopper.

Second, much of the "grass roots" debate in Raleigh is being fomented by the railroad companies who would prefer not to be the chosen option. Big money is being spent by them to "lobby" this issue and disinform the public. Be careful about biting on that hook. In Durham, the rail conduit is owned by the NCRR. Carefully analyze whatever they may say. For rail companies, passenger is an annoyance, freight pays the . . . well . . . freight.

Third, the process that they are undergoing in Raleigh is what's known as alternatives analysis. It is a necessary part of transportation planning. Ultimately, NCDOT will take direction from local communities and will help them consider any viable alternative but at the end of the day somebody's ox will get gored. Hopefully it will be for the greater public good. Here in Durham one often hears the lament about Hwy 147's destruction of the Hayti community; what has been conveniently forgotten is that there was broad local support for the hwy from both the black and white communities. So the path of 147 wasn't imposed by folks in Raleigh. Durham did it to themselves.

Fourth, in my view, a train stop at the Airport is not going to happen. The idea is to make our urban centers accessible via a variety of modes of transportation and, thus, reducing the need for cars, roads & parking lots. There is no rail system (light rail thru higher speed) that is even being considered to have a stop at the airport. Having said that, thanks JG for the "out of the box" thinking. We need that. And who knows, maybe I've got it totally wrong. I doubt it but we need to genuinely consider every alternative.

Again, thanks Kevin.

Chuck

Just wanted to add that this problem is being considered by the various stakeholders including the City, Triangle Transit, NCRR, CSX, NCDOT and others. They are pulling together the funding necessary to hire a consultant to develop the alternatives. The consultants process will include a substantial public comment component. Please keep your eye out for these opportunities.

Interestingly, there is a plan on file with DOT that dates back to the 1920's. I'll do what I can to get it to Kevin (it is not currently in electronic form). Clearly this is not a new problem. Hopefully, this time there will be funding sufficient not simply to develop a more current plan but to actually bring about a solution. The Federal High Speed rail grant is clearly a part of the reason for hope here. The other will be our public commitment to increasing local transportation options by increasing the various sources for public funding. More on this later.

Chuck

@tjd -- the time it has taken to complete the bridge over 147 is not indicative of the time it may take to complete the high speed rail project. You are right that the order of magnitude is different but so is the money. Bike/ped projects in NC have traditionally been woefully underfunded getting a minuscule portion of the NCDOT budget. All the modes of transportation combined, other than roads and highways, have traditionally gotten less than 5% of the budget (rail, ferry, airports, bike, and pedestrian combined). The new draft plan has increased that percentage to 7%. After all the NCDOT used to be the Highway Commission. I am hopefully that over time modes other than roads will receive a bigger piece of the transpiration dollar in NC. However, the federal contribution to higher speed rail will begin to be felt very soon by communities like Durham and Raleigh.

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