Over or under?
That's the quandary for railroaders, traffic engineers and scads of drivers and pedestrians who yearn for a smart way to separate busy Blue Ridge Road from its clogged crossings at Hillsborough Street and twin train tracks in West Raleigh.
About 40,000 cars creep through this intersection on an average day - and at this hot spot, "average" is misleading. Weekend flea markets, the annual State Fair and frequent hockey, basketball and football games make this corner even more trafficacious (Read traffic and catastrophe).
Blue Ridge drivers have to stop for 22 freight and passenger trains every day, and the count is rising. The state plans to add more passenger trains in 2012. The N.C. Railroad is tinkering with a plan for a dozen or so daily commuter trains.
And so, given Raleigh's relentless crazy growth, state Department of Transportation engineers say the forecast is for gridlock by 2030 - unless we pick one of these options:
Lift Blue Ridge Road 33 feet over the twin tracks and the two streets that sandwich them, Hillsborough and Beryl Road, at an estimated cost of $19 million.
That could work - if we don't mind hiding our beloved Dorton Arena and fairgrounds behind a long, tall bridge and retaining walls.
Lift Blue Ridge only 17 feet, and lower the tracks and the two streets by 13 feet. Price: $60 million.
That's easier on the eyes, but harder on the railroads. Trains don't like to climb a slope of more than 1 percent, so it could be expensive and disruptive to start lowering the tracks a few hundred yards away in each direction - work that would have to be done without stopping daily train traffic.
The new favorite choice is:
Lower Blue Ridge Road 29 feet under the street and tracks, for $28 million. Three short bridges would keep Hillsborough, Beryl and the tracks where they are now - with room for a fourth bridge in the future, if Triangle Transit decides to roll into West Raleigh with its proposed electric light rail trains.
"This one seems to address all our problems," said Leza W. Mundt, a DOT planning engineer.
She aired the ideas Monday for a citizen committee advising the Raleigh City Council on a string of issues related to rail transit and passenger train plans.
Each option comes with fine print - and with provisions to avoid trampling the plans of railroads, nearby businesses and residents, and two big state institutions.
Drivers wanting to turn from Blue Ridge onto Hillsborough, or vice versa, would have to use a new connector road to be built on the northeast corner - land owned by the N.C. State University College of Veterinary Medicine. On the south side of the tracks, Pylon Drive would provide a similar connection between Blue Ridge and Beryl.
The new downward slope of Blue Ridge would start near State Fair Gate 11, but that doesn't look like a problem for fairgoers. Long-range fair plans call for closing that gate and building up the main fairgrounds entrance on Trinity Road.
Likewise, Mundt's team is trimming its ideas to fit NCSU's plans for expanding the veterinary college's campus.
People on foot and on bicycle can't be ignored, either. On an average State Fair day, 15,000 people walk across the intersection of Blue Ridge and Hillsborough.
A possible station for Triangle Transit or commuter trains - or both - would probably be built above the tracks. And it would have to be accessible to people walking on Blue Ridge Road below the tracks.
State engineers hope to make the over-or-under choice by next summer. Construction doesn't start until 2018.