Fast train route could detour Raleigh's scene

Staff WriterJuly 11, 2010 

  • The fast trains' fate is entangled with plans for light rail Triangle Transit tracks that would run through downtown Raleigh, using the CSX corridor on the east side of Capital Boulevard.

    Ever since Triangle Transit bought land along the CSX path nearly a decade ago, Mordecai residents have been preparing for a time when more trains will pass their way.

    "We have been under the assumption that our neighborhood would be impacted by this high-speed rail one day," said Reid Serozi, 31, co-chairman of the Mordecai Citizens Advisory Council.

    David King, general manager of Triangle Transit, hopes the proposed high-speed trains will take the western route.

    "From what I understand, the Norfolk Southern alignment for high-speed rail would uncomplicate things for us," King said. "Because we wouldn't have to share a fairly narrow and restrictive corridor with high-speed rail on the CSX side."

  • Public hearings start this week, and public comment will be accepted through August on the draft environmental impact statement for the Raleigh-to-Richmond portion of the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor.

    Four hearings are planned in North Carolina. At each hearing, an open house starts at 5 p.m., followed by a formal hearing at 7 p.m.

    Tuesday at Northside Elementary School, 164 Elementary Ave., Norlina

    July 26 at Raleigh Convention Center, 500 S. Salisbury St.

    July 27 at Aycock Elementary School, 205 Carey Chapel Road, Henderson

    July 29 at Franklinton High School gym, 6948 N. Cheatham St., Franklinton

    N.C. Department of Transportation officials will incorporate public comments into their final proposal by early 2011 and then seek federal approval and funding to move ahead on the project.

    The 666-page study, with 784 pages of maps and supporting material, is available online at sehsr.org

— Brad Hurley says he appreciates what high-speed rail service will do for Raleigh, but he worries that a new plan for fast trains could kill a downtown corner where he has served beer and oysters for 23 years.

"It sounds like 'pick your poison,' " said Hurley, co-owner of the 42nd Street Oyster Bar at Jones and West streets.

Pulsing with pubs and eateries, Jones Street has become a crucial conduit between downtown Raleigh and the thriving Glenwood South district just west of railroad tracks that roll through the city.

Jones was a drab side street, with broken windows and padlocked doors, when the restaurant opened in 1987. If you stand at Hurley's corner today, you can see high-rise condos in three directions.

The state Department of Transportation is evaluating two routes through Raleigh for the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor, which would give passenger trains a fast new shortcut to Richmond, Va. The proposed new track would cut nearly two hours from train trips between North Carolina and the Northeast.

Both Raleigh route options would constrict Jones Street but in dramatically different ways. The choice could help shape downtown growth for decades to come.

"It's a very important decision," Mayor Charles Meeker said. "On one hand, we want passenger rail service with high-speed trains. On the other hand, we don't want the downtown to be hard to walk or drive around."

Traffic flow is sure to change, because every street-rail crossing on the 162-mile track from Raleigh to Richmond will be either closed or replaced with a bridge. The aim is to prevent collisions with trains that would roll through Raleigh at 30 to 60 mph - and, farther up the line, as fast as 110 mph.

The two routes under consideration would close different downtown streets in a two-mile stretch between Jones Street and Wake Forest Road. These tracks now carry freight trains past old residential neighborhoods - Five Points and Mordecai - on opposite sides of Capital Boulevard.

If the DOT chose to follow Norfolk Southern tracks along Capital's west side, Jones Street would be closed at the rail crossing. That would sever the path to Glenwood South and the bars and restaurants east toward downtown. Pub crawlers would have to find a less direct route, passing under the tracks on North Street or over them on Hillsborough.

Under the second option, using the CSX rail corridor on the east side of Capital Boulevard, Jones Street would stay open.

But the street would be transformed into a giant viaduct, elevating Jones for almost four blocks between Boylan Avenue and Dawson Street. Cars and pedestrians would pass high above Glenwood, the train tracks and West Street - and bars and restaurants below. The CSX option also would close West and Harrington streets just north of Jones.

The result: New barriers for residents and businesses just north and west of the CSX tracks.

If, for instance, residents of the 17-story West at North condo tower wanted to dine at the 42nd Street Oyster Bar across the West Street tracks, they would have to circle a few blocks down to Hillsborough Street - and approach from the south.

That prospect makes Hurley grimace.

"Closing down Jones Street just makes me sick," he said. "But if they build that bridge and close down West Street, that might just put us out of business."

Favored path emerges

As restaurateurs, developers and downtown dwellers chew over the alternatives, an emerging consensus appears to share Hurley's view: The Norfolk Southern option would be less disruptive to the neighborhood, even though it would cut Jones Street in two. Nor would it cross West and Harrington, so both streets would remain open as vital paths for downtown commerce.

No one has spoken up for putting Jones Street on stilts.

"I'm not in favor of a bridge from Boylan Avenue that spans 1,300 feet and goes past Harrington, because it's going to destroy those businesses there," said Stephen Votino, 40, who overlooks the tracks from his fourth-floor apartment in Glenwood South. "And aesthetically, it's not going to look good."

Niall Hanley, who has three restaurants along Glenwood, says closing West and Harrington would isolate Glenwood South from the rest of downtown. Turning Jones into a big bridge would be worse than closing it at the tracks, he said.

"I would hate to lose two streets and have this monstrous viaduct," Hanley said.

Federal rail design standards require crossings to be closed or bridged only if trains run faster than 110 mph. North Carolina would have the option to keep some crossings open, with multiple safety gates and other protections to reduce the chance of trains hitting cars and pedestrians.

But state DOT officials say it will be much safer not to have people walking or driving across the tracks.

"We're not going 110 mph in downtown Raleigh, but we know the safest way to design a transportation system for the future is to separate highway and rail," said Pat Simmons, the state DOT Rail Division director.

Downtown commerce and traffic aren't the only factors that will come into play as city, state and federal agencies weigh the choices. Historic properties and environmental questions must be considered, but they don't appear to make a significant difference for the two options.

The Norfolk Southern route would displace as many as 54 businesses including warehouses, building and auto supply shops, a taxi stand and possibly a concrete firm served by the freight tracks. The CSX route would displace up to 23 businesses.

Five Points residents have expressed concern that the Norfolk Southern option would close a rail crossing at Fairview Road. But some dropped their objections when they learned that a closed crossing means approaching trains no longer would sound their horns.

Still, not everyone is on board with the Norfolk Southern route - least of all, Norfolk Southern. The new track would pass through a rail yard where switching engines move freight cars around and assemble them into trains, and it would displace the railroad's local office.

Its passenger policy director, John V. Edwards, warned city officials in a June 9 letter that routing high-speed trains through the Norfolk Southern corridor would worsen rail congestion, cause environmental and economic harm, and undermine the city's plans for a combined Amtrak and transit depot on West Hargett Street.

CSX has not commented on the proposals.

Residential effects

Neither proposal would displace any residences, but the Norfolk Southern route would slice through the backyards of four homes on Bickett Boulevard, in the historic Roanoke Park neighborhood near Five Points.

Scott Kauffman doesn't want to lose his garage and about half of the lush backyard he and his cat share with a surprising variety of urban wildlife: a red-tailed hawk, a raccoon and feral felines that jump off passing freight trains to raid the pet-food bowl on his porch.

Recently his personal park attracted another wild visitor: a coyote.

"This is a little sanctuary for me," said Kauffman, 50, a nurse anesthetist. "With Capital Boulevard nearby, you would think it would be noisy. But it's so quiet here when I'm sitting on my porch."

By early next year, DOT officials expect to pick their preferred route for the entire Raleigh-to-Richmond line. Then they'll push for federal funding to finish the engineering work, buy the necessary right of way, and start construction.

The trains could be rolling as soon as 2017 if everything works out, but North Carolina will be competing with other states for money to build the national high-speed rail network envisioned by President Barack Obama. North Carolina and Virginia won $620 million in federal high-speed rail grants this year and are seeking about $3 billion more to build the new line.

"This is really the new interstate system," said Greg Hatem, a downtown Raleigh developer with properties on both sides of the tracks. "The impact is going to be similar, and I don't think a lot of other communities are preparing for this. We need to be sure we embrace the concept, and have the best solution for downtown Raleigh."

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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