Jason Baker: Correcting the record on the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project

This guest post, written by Jason Baker, originally appeared at OrangePolitics.org. We're reprinting it here with permission. It's a full-throated response to the Indy Week's cover story last week on the Durham-Orange light rail project. 

As always with guest posts, the opinions expressed here are those of the original author -- but heartily seconded by your editor here. -KSD

The June 29, 2016, “Off the Rails” INDY Week piece by David Hudnall, which discusses the Durham-Orange light rail transit project (DOLRT) is a poorly researched opinion piece that does a tremendous disservice to INDY Week readers, residents of Durham and Chapel Hill, and—most importantly—current public transit riders in Durham and Orange counties who stand to benefit greatly from a significantly enhanced bus and rail transit network with DOLRT at its core.

Hudnall’s piece mistakes anecdotes for data, ignores significant differences between Wake County and Durham-Chapel Hill, ignores the ways in which current low-income residents travel today—and what that tells us about the usefulness of DOLRT—and, finally, skips reasonable fact-checking of anti-rail project critics’ claims with publicly available documents, including past INDY Week stories on DOLRT.

In an effort to correct many of the misrepresentations of facts, and errors made by Hudnall, below are excerpts from his piece with added context, data, and information so that readers can get an accurate understanding of DOLRT, the benefits it will provide for our community, and why light rail will meet the needs of Durham and Orange Counties and move us forward.

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Upcoming meeting on bike/ped plan, plus corrections to the May 8 post

First, a key presentation is coming up early next month about the bike/ped plan. Whether you walk, bike, or drive, anyone who leaves his/her house should attend the city’s open house about the bicycle/pedestrian plan update. The event happens on Monday, June 6, at the Durham County Main Library, 300 N. Roxboro St., from 4 to 7 p.m. There will be maps, surveys, and interactive presentations, the latter of which occur at the top of each hour. (And then, civically minded readers, head over to City Hall for the City Council meeting.)


Secondly I need to correct and/or clarify several points I made in writing about the state of Durham’s sidewalks in the May 8 post. I apologize for these errors and the lack of clarity.

1) I walked all of Dearborn Drive from Old Oxford Road — near Oxford Manor — to Maplewood Drive. Parts of this stretch southeast of Ruth Street don’t have sidewalks; however, according to the city’s transportation department, it is a separate project that did not score highly in the DurhamWalks! plan. This was not clear from the post.

2) The sidewalk petitions plan is no longer in effect; so if you want a sidewalk, you can petition City Council. If Council approves the petition, then your request goes into the project queue to be constructed when funding became available. In other words, no jumping to the front of the line anymore.

In the comments section, there was a discussion about the sidewalk petition process. It determines that sidewalks not in the DurhamWalks! Pedestrian Plan will be assessed at full cost of construction at the time they’re built.

Sidewalks on the DurhamWalks! Pedestrian Plan will be assessed at $35 per linear foot once constructed. According to the city, there has not yet been a discussion regarding whether this process will change as the plan update is adopted.   

3) And finally, four of the top unfunded sidewalk projects that I listed are now either funded or partially funded. Here’s a timeline from the city:

•      North Roxboro Street from Pacific to Murray: This project is in design, with anticipated construction beginning February 2019.

•      East Geer Street from Midland Terrace to Glenn School Road: No current funding, will be reanalyzed and prioritized in plan update.

•      South Alston Avenue between Cecil Street and Riddle Road: Design complete, anticipated construction beginning June 2018.

•      North Duke Street between Carver Street and Roxboro Road: Funding for sidewalk on East side of road from Murray Ave to Roxboro Road. Construction anticipated to begin August 2021.

•      Horton Road between Stadium Drive and Roxboro Road: Partially funded, will be reanalyzed and prioritized in plan update.


You don't appreciate a good bus stop until it rains; GoDurham holds public meeting tonight

Bus stop 2

 Who is to congratulate for installing this bus stop book swap? Photo by Lisa Sorg

The city’s best bus stop is in front of the Durham Co-op on West Chapel Hill Street, on the No. 6 line that runs from downtown into Duke West Campus and all the way to Sparger Road. Enclosed in glass, the stop has a roof to protect riders from the rain. And it features a book swap. Akin to Little Free Libraries, bus stop book swaps can be found worldwide. What better way to pass the time on a bus than by reading? (Unless you’re like me, and books + buses = motion sickness.) 

Bus stops — their number, location, safety, and condition — are the topic of a GoDurham public meeting tonight from 6:30 to 8 p.m., at the Durham Transportation Center, 515 W. Pettigrew St. You can also comment online. 

The GoDurham system has 1,058 bus stops, the conditions of which vary widely. Some are forlorn outposts in grass on the side of highways; others are near the city center, and where, despite a large trash can, people still throw their losing lottery tickets on the ground. (I’m looking at you, Morehead Avenue.)  One, on Rigsbee Avenue near Durham Central Park, even has a solar-powered, real-time departure and arrival board.

Here are some bus stop statistics, provided by GoDurham:

  • 137 stops are sheltered
  • 37 additional stops have benches only
  • 705 bus stops are located on a sidewalk
  • 61 percent of all GoDurham boardings are at stops with shelters
  • An additional 3 percent of boardings are at stops with just benches
  • 84 percent of all GoDurham boardings are at stops located on a sidewalk

According to GoTriangle/GoDurham figures, a single shelter costs $8,000–$10,000, plus several thousand dollars in installation costs. Installing a single bus stop can cost as little as $500 if, for example, the City can include a concrete waiting pad as part of a larger sidewalk project. However, if the location is more complicated — along an N.C. Department of Transportation right-of-way, such as along Highway 54 or even Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, and on private property — the cost can exceed $25,000 even before construction.

GoDurham is proposing to the city to add 10 new bus stops a year, with 200 over the next decade. Some of the improvements will be made with money generated by the transit tax that voters approved in 2011. 

So now you know. You're ready for the meeting.

Durham Rescue Mission wants no part of Golden Belt's local historic designation

Golden Belt (dragged)


It cost just $265 to build a three-room house on Morning Glory Avenue; for an extra $4, the carpenter would toss in a privy. That was in 1900, when the 20-acre mill village, then known as Morning Glory, housed the workers who made cloth and thread at the nearby Golden Belt factory.

Download Golden Belt

More than 115 years later, the Golden Belt neighborhood is one of the last areas near downtown that is relatively affordable for the middle-class. And with its tight street grid and modest former mill houses, the neighborhood feels distinct — character that residents want to preserve through a local historic designation.

“It’s our hope that local designation will guide further development, small-scale in form and character in the future development,” Jennifer Martin Mitchell of MdM, the city’s consultants for the project, told the Historic Preservation Commission at a special meeting Wednesday morning.

The HPC recommended the designation and its boundaries at a meeting Wednesday morning, although with concerns about criteria that could guide future development.

While residents at the meeting overwhelmingly supported the designation, a major property owner in the neighborhood, the Durham Rescue Mission, wants to secede from the proposed historic district. The mission owns 13 properties in the neighborhood, including five historically contributing structures and several vacant lots in the 1200 block of Worth Street and Morning Glory Avenue.

 “We want to be sliced out somehow,” Rob Tart, the rescue mission’s chief operating officer, told the HPC. “We don’t want to be part of it. It’s onerous. It doesn’t help us accomplish our goals of serving homeless people. This will not help what we’re trying to do. We don’t think it’s profitable or helpful.”

However, what the rescue mission is trying to do is unclear. Tart acknowledged the nonprofit, which has been in the neighborhood since 1974, has no concrete vision for its properties, only to say it doesn’t include single-family homes. He also said he had not read the design criteria, only that he had been “briefed on it.”  

“But we have no desire to build what you want us to,” Tart told the HPC. “You’ll leave those lots empty. Nothing will happen on those properties, because we’re not going anywhere.”

Since the mission is a nonprofit, it does not pay property taxes. It has assets worth $23 million, according to its 2014 federal tax statements. The mission CEO, Ernie Mills, earns nearly $150,000 annually. Tart is paid $110,000 per year.  Download 2014_DurhamRescueMission

Vacant lots provide an opportunity to strengthen the fabric of a historic neighborhood, said Cynthia de Miranda of MdM. “They can help reestablish street patterns. They can enhance what has been lost.”

Lisa Miller, a senior planner and urban designer for the city, told Tart that multi-family housing could be built in the historic district, as long as it’s “not a big block of apartments of monolithic faces to the streets.” For example, after several design iterations, the Greystone apartment complex in historic Morehead Hill was ultimately approved by the HPC. 

“This isn’t hamstringing or forcing someone to build single-family homes,” Miller said. “There is a lot of leeway but you do have to hold on to basic elements of building placement and design.”

Without a local historic designation and its associated design criteria, the Golden Belt neighborhood could be very much in jeopardy. The widening of Alston Avenue — construction is scheduled to begin in August — threatens to divide the eastern and western portions of the neighborhood. 

“We see this local designation to give the neighborhood some leverage to be the walkable, integrated, inclusive community we want it to be,” said Mel Norton, who lives on Wall Street. As part of Durham Congregations and Neighborhoods, she has conducted extensive research on gentrification in the city. “I’m afraid we’ll see what’s happening in Cleveland-Holloway happening here” — teardowns replaced by “bigger non-descriptive homes that don’t relate to the neighborhood.”

And with the its proximity to downtown, former Golden Belt resident John Martin said, the neighborhood “is still very fragile. “If you don’t do this, you’ll start seeing gentrification in a bad way, people tearing down mill houses that can be protected and preserved.”

Construction and renovation projects by the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity and Scientific Properties, which purchased the old factories and several blighted homes, have kept prices modest, often under $150,000. But the asking price for a new house on Worth Street is $295,000.

“There are already high development pressures that will increase over time,” said Ben Filippo, executive director of Preservation Durham

Maintaining connectivity on the east and west sides of Alston Avenue is “essential” he added, and that tax breaks for preservation could help achieve that goal.

“If we can’t include those residences — the working class housing-stock that Durham was built on — if we don’t provide incentives to protect that,” Filippo said, “we are doing a major disservice to our residents.”

The issue will go to the planning commission in June, and ultimately to City Council.

Timeline of Golden Belt neighborhood

1900: Julian Carr begins construction of the cotton mill and bag factory, plus the first phase of the village 

1906-1930: Golden Belt expands to six factories, including hosiery and cigarette cartons

1910-1920: Mill village expands to accommodate additional workers.

1985:  The 39-acre Golden Belt Historic District listed on National Register of Historic Places

1996:  The district boundary increased to add a building at the southeast corner of East Main  and North Elm streets. The building has since been demolished but the parcel remains in the district. 

2008: Period of significance is extended from 1935 to 1958

2010:  Petition is circulated to also designate the National Historic District a local historic district.

2015:  Creation of local district initiated with public meetings and initial research by MdM   Historical Consultants

Durham has largest number of people dying in Amtrak-pedestrian accidents in North Carolina


 Photo by Lisa Sorg

Each time I board an Amtrak train, before it pulls away from the station, I quietly say an intention that it not hit anyone or anything along the route.

Over the last six weeks, I’ve been commuting to Greensboro for work, and some days I take the train, a relaxing 59-minute trip between downtowns. I’ve become in tune with the shifts in the track, what feels right under my feet. When I look out the window and see the Haw River or a steep gulley 30, 40 feet below, I think about how precarious train travel—any travel, really—can be.

Yesterday afternoon I was not on the train, thankfully, when it hit a man on the tracks near North LaSalle Street and Hillsborough Road in west Durham. It turns out that the man, whose name hasn’t been released, is the 10th person in Durham who has died while on the railroad tracks after being hit by Amtrak passenger trains in the past three years.

In fact, Durham accounts for 28 percent of all railroad fatalities in North Carolina involving people walking on the tracks and Amtrak trains. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, from January 2012 through October 2015, the latest figures available, there were 32 such cases; Durham had nine, the most in the state. (I’m counting yesterday’s accident as the 10th.)

Alamance County ranks second, with eight people killed.

Download Trespassers_fatalities (Excel document)

This doesn’t mean that Durham train tracks are inherently more dangerous than those in other counties; this city was built around the railroad, and thus the tracks run through a lot of neighborhoods and populated areas. People who walk on the tracks are known as “trespassers,” because the railroad is private property. And many of us have trespassed, myself included, particularly downtown.

I dug more deeply into the federal safety data, which logs every injury and fatality that occurs on the tracks, both inside and outside the train, passengers and railroad employees. I limited my search to Amtrak (as opposed to freight lines): Of the 32 fatalities in North Carolina over the last three years, seven of them were teenagers. One person was between 76 and 80 years old.

Most people were walking when the train hit them, although three were lying down, two were sitting and two were standing. 

Depressing figures, no doubt, but I found some levity in the data, which is logged on an official 55A form. In 2014, for example, of the 37 non-fatal incidents in North Carolina, several were from insect bites or bruises when people lost their balance and fell or hit something—easy to do when you’re walking down the aisle when the train is moving. 

There is some levity in the data: Injuries have included a finger injury from a chess table and a bruised chest from a falling snack pack.

In one case, an Amtrak worker was scratched on the forehead by a passenger in Guilford County ; another passenger in Halifax County injured her finger on the chess table. A person had an anxiety attack in Durham, also understandable if you’ve ever been delayed on any kind of public transit. 

Download 2014 _amtrak_injuries_fatalities

In 2015, there were 117 injury reports, half of them occurring during one accident in March, when an Amtrak train hit a semi-truck that became stuck on the tracks in Halifax County. No one was killed in that accident, but 55 of the 212 passengers on board, and several Amtrak workers, suffered bruises, cuts and broken bones.

Download 2015_amtrak_injuries_fatalities

I’ve often wondered how Amtrak workers deal with the psychological stress after a serious accident. They do suffer from stress-related trauma; the reports indicate that these workers are allowed time away from the job to recover.

As for the woman in Richmond County who was bruised after a snack pack fell into her lap, I’m pretty sure she’s OK.

I compared these Amtrak figures with those of two freight lines that run through North Carolina: CSX and Norfolk Southern. The former reported 50 trespasser casualties; the latter 29.

When you figure in the freight reports with Amtrak, Durham and Alamance counties are tied for third in the state, with 10 (and Durham now with 11 deaths and injuries) since 2012. Mecklenburg County is is first with 15 injuries and fatalities, and Guilford County with 13.

City affordable housing report suggests different experiences, opportunities, risk for low-income vs. very-low-income Durhamites

At tomorrow's City Council work session, Karen Lado from Enterprise Community Partners will share a housing profile report developed as part of her company's contracted work to help Durham with its strategy on affordable housing.

This first step in Enterprise's work gives intriguing details and data about the state of Durham's demographics -- and demographic change -- along with the nature of Durham's affordable housing stock.

We'll summarize some of its key findings here, though I'd very much encourage readers to dive through themselves, as it's a fascinating read. (The document is available on the City of Durham's web site.)

A note of caution: this is my first-pass interpretation based on what's in the report, and doesn't benefit from the consultant's presentation, which will take place at work session tomorrow. (The errors of the interpretation lie with me, et cetera.) With that said, the report raises some intriguing findings about the need for and supply of affordable housing.


Population Change in Durham

Between 2000 and 2013, the study period in the report, the City's population grew by 26%, outpacing both the overall County growth rate (19%) and the state's (20%). This jives both with recent findings that Durham is one of the fastest-growing US cities, and that most of the community's growth is happening in the urbanized, incorporated city limits.

Of the nearly 75,000 households in the City in 2000, the data suggest 52.2% of them had incomes greater than 80% of the area median income (AMI), the threshold for determining whether a household is low-income or not. By 2013, that number rises to 57.7%, with households in this group seeing the greatest 2000-2013 change (46%).

Durham also saw a rise in households with very low incomes (30-50% of AMI), at 39% growth. The number of extremely low income households shrunk by 2%, while low income households (50-80% of AMI) grew 18%.

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I Walk the Line: Protecting affordability near Buchanan Boulevard

Murray 2

Old warehouse, now part of the Duke Transportation lot, Buchanan Boulevard  Photo by Lisa Sorg


Note: The public comment period on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement ends Oct. 13. You can comment via www.ourtransitfuture.com .

 Near Brightleaf Square, an eerie stretch of West Pettigrew Street parallels an active rail line. Part of the “street” is gravel, and more closely resembles a cowpath. It then crosses Gregson, and curves past the remains of an old, brick house, its lot strewn with trash. Beneath some leaves, I find a woman’s bracelet.



Pettigrew Street dead-ends at the Duke University transportation center and impound lot, site of the future Buchanan Boulevard station. For now, though, buses await their scheduled maintenance, garbage trucks nap between routes and discarded parking lot booths transform into terrariums as vines climb inside them. Cars, having violated Duke’s strict parking rules, have been jailed until their owners bail them out.

Read more about this neighborhood and its potential affordability challenges.


I Walk the Line: Exploring Durham's proposed 11-mile light-rail route on foot

I walk the line main image

Ninth Street and Erwin Road  Photo by Lisa Sorg

Eleven miles, walked twice. Two cases of heat exhaustion. Countless mosquitoes. Hundreds of cars. Since GoTriangle announced the Durham portion of its proposed light rail line, I have wanted to walk it, to experience it, not as a simulated fly over, but on the ground. A map is a representation of the route, but it lacks ground truth, the sense of place and people along the way. 

For the next nine days until the public hearing on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, I’ll post photos, stories, census data and yes, maps from the line and its environs in hopes that readers will consider and discuss the pros and cons of the $1.8 billion project. It will not only be an enormous engineering feat, but the light rail line will have generational effects on neighborhoods, people, businesses and the social connections among them. 

Despite the road signs that have sprung up around Durham that say, “No light rail”, there is a lot of local and federal support for the project. (Full disclosure: I’m for it.) The federal government will chip in half of the $1.8 billion cost—$900 million—while a part of local taxes, passed by a voter referendum, will provide 25 percent of it, about $450 million.

However, on a state level, that support died this week on Jones Street. The legislature all but reneged on its funding commitment, decreasing it to a measly $500,000. GoTriangle says the train will keep a rollin’ so to speak. There could be other funding sources to tap, and time to tap them. We should know more by mid-October.

The public can comment on the DEIS until Oct. 13. A public hearing on the document is scheduled for Durham on Thursday, Oct. 1, 4–7 p.m., Durham County Commission Chamber, 200 E. Main St., Second Floor.

I encourage you to walk at least a portion of the line. Bring water, bug spray and sunblock. And enjoy getting to know your city from the ground up. Let's start at Alston Avenue. To accommodate the photos and the graphics, the link will take you to my personal blog, 36degreeslatitude.

Durham-Orange light rail faces significant challenge in General Assembly's new budget

On Monday, GoTriangle sent out a press release about $1.7 million in Federal funding received to plan transit-oriented development. It was a good win, second only to Seattle's funding in the FTA effort, and a sign from the feds that the Durham-Orange project had significant merit. 

The release was embargoed until Tuesday for publication, a common step where media outlets and PR are concerned.

Ironically, GoTriangle in retrospect probably wishes they had a different type of embargo: one to keep nasty cargo, as it were, from being smuggled in as a rider to the hush-hush, back-room state budget deal.

But, alas: the small number of legislators putting together the state budget -- representing rural counties almost exclusively -- sneaked a surprise into what the Herald-Sun's Lauren Horsch noted was page 386 of the budget. 

That surprise? A $500,000 maximum project funding for light rail projects, across the board, from state sources.

For now, this has the look that it could be a deal-killer, since there's no chance that the FTA will release federal funds to construct a light rail line without significant state and local backing. But what should we look for in the weeks and months to come on this?

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Sept. 10: Live blogging today's Durham City Council meeting re: affordable housing

Update at 3:48: The affordable housing discussion just ended. It's now on Light Rail. I'm starting a new blog post about this portion. Actually, GoTriangle is going over a Powerpoint presentation, a very basic primer, that is not online. It's probably better that I read it, then do a wrap-up rather than a live blog.

1:23 County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, a member of the Public Safety Task Force of the Mayor's Poverty Reduction Initiative, is speaking now. The initiative focuses on Census Tract 10.01,  where poverty is most concentrated in Durham.

Among the Task Force recommendations:

1. Poverty simulation for police officers

2. Encourage officers to live in the area with assistance to buy or rent housing. Atlanta and Columbia, S.C. have such programs. Officers participating receive an end-of-year bonus and low-interest loans.

3. Establishing a curriculum with Holton School and Durham Tech for public safety careers, which would preclude the need to recruit officers from out of town.

4. A new DPD position, a community liaison, to help mediate relationships between the neighborhood and police in this area.

5. More officers walking a beat rather than just responding to 9-1-1 calls. This could require more staffing.

We're talking taxes now, which has been pretty dry, until this:

The 751 South developers have not paid their property taxes in full; they're on a payment plan.

2 p.m. We're now on the big agenda item of the day: affordable housing

Mayor Bill Bell just asked people to lower their signs or remove them from the room.

Kevin Dick, director of Economic and Workforce Development is leading a presentation, 
"Durham Station Disposition and Development Alternatives"

"We are recommending a mixed-use, transit-oriented development. It does NOT preclude affordable housing.  [applause] but it does NOT guarantee it either. [groan]" 

"It provides the possibility for job opportunities near transit. We would have a scoring process that lends itself to affordable housing. It would provide retail and open space."

Fast facts:

2.15 acres of developable land, which was originally purchased in part using a NCDOT grant. That grant had certain conditions, including that proceeds from the city's sale would fund station improvements. The cost of those upgrades would total $1.8 million to $2 million.

Here are some details on Alternative A, the recommended proposal. It would be a public-private partnership urban development project. It would promote job and tax base growth. There is a potential challenge that there would be limited opportunity to promote affordable residential. [That's a problem.] It would take about five months for the entire sale process to happen.

Dick is now showing other examples that have been successful:

Mile High in Denver Colorado

Fruitvale Village in Oakland, transit, ground floor retail and affordable housing

Southside in Durham
Alternative B is next ...

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