Road Worrier

Glenwood work hits path of streetcar

Staff WriterJune 1, 2010 

A project to put new asphalt on Glenwood Avenue near Five Points will take more time and cost more money, thanks to an old combination of soft, crumbling concrete and hard, steel tracks.

It's the second time this year that Raleigh's streetcar history has created unexpected snags for street improvements.

State Department of Transportation engineers knew they would find a concrete slab after they milled away the top three inches of asphalt on Glenwood. But the concrete was at least 70 years old and in worse shape than expected.

The street looks like a gravel road now between Five Points and Wade Avenue. The exposed concrete is turning to rubble under the tires of 30,000 cars a day.

DOT is expected this week to work out a plan with its contractor, The Fred Smith Co. (better known in Raleigh by its old name, C.C. Mangum), to dig out the concrete. They might put down a fresh slab before they finish Glenwood with new asphalt.

Their remedy will be complicated by twin steel rails embedded in the old concrete. The tracks carried streetcars along the center of Glenwood a century ago, linking Raleigh to what was then the emerging suburb of Hayes Barton.

The Raleigh Electric Co. (better known by its new name, Progress Energy) operated electric streetcars between 1891 and 1933. In front of the Rialto Theater, you can see the old rails on Glenwood, now decorated with fresh gouge marks from an asphalt milling machine.

"Because that gauge steel is so heavy, it knocked a lot of teeth off the milling machine," said Jeff Allen, a DOT engineer overseeing the project to repave Glenwood from Wade to Woman's Club Drive. "They went through more teeth than they expected, and it took extra time."

The road crews may have to bring in blowtorches to cut out the streetcar rails before they can dig out the old concrete, Allen said. The unplanned work will push the project past its scheduled June 11 completion, adding money to a $1.8 million contract.

And perhaps it will add to Dan Howe's art collection.

Howe, an assistant city manager, recently salvaged old streetcar rails that had to be pulled out of Hillsborough Street. The extra rail work helped add $600,000 to the price of a new traffic roundabout at the intersection with Morgan Street.

Howe wants to reuse the rails in public art, perhaps worked into the design of new bus shelters.

"It's a great opportunity to use these prominent spaces on the street," Howe said. "We could allow an artist to interpret history using these materials that came right out of the street."

The rails were a foot below the surface, which indicates how much pavement has been piled on that part of Hillsborough since 1933. They got in the way of a plan to install new 8-inch sewer pipes below the street, so they had to be removed.

"This material has a history," Howe said. "It harks back to another era."

Streetcars could be part of Raleigh's future, too. Regional transit plans for the next 30 years include electric light-rail trains and trolleys that might run through downtown and along streets including Glenwood and Hillsborough.

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