RALEIGH — A year after their ideas were roundly criticized, engineers for the state Department of Transportation hope to steer clear of trouble with a new idea for routing high-speed passenger trains through downtown Raleigh.
The centerpiece of their new approach is a 700-foot-long bridge that would lift trains over six lanes of traffic on Capital Boulevard near Wade Avenue.
Raleigh residents will be invited to comment on the new proposal, and on revisions to two other routes that were criticized last summer, at a Sept. 27 public meeting in the Raleigh Convention Center.
It's part of DOT's work on a proposed 162-mile track for trains that would run as fast as 110 mph between Raleigh and Richmond, Va. The new line would be 35 miles shorter than the route now used by Amtrak, and DOT says it would cut two hours of travel time for journeys from Raleigh to Washington and the Northeast.
Norfolk Southern protested last year that it would suffer damages of $100 million or more if DOT ran the passenger trains through its freight yard along the western edge of Capital Boulevard. Residents of nearby Five Points neighborhoods expressed alarm about noise and destructive vibrations from speeding trains.
A mirror-image option, to run the trains through a CSX freight yard on the eastern side of Capital Boulevard, drew only mild concern from CSX and nearby residents. But the City Council asked DOT to come back with some more alternatives.
The new alternative was inspired by Raleigh lawyer Ben Kuhn, a Five Points resident who suggested a bridge crossing Capital Boulevard diagonally near Peace Street. DOT engineers took his idea and moved it a few hundred yards north, where the boulevard is lower and easier to cross.
Moving north from a future downtown train station to be built somewhere near Hargett Street, the passenger trains would run alongside Norfolk Southern tracks. About two blocks north of Peace Street, the new tracks would veer right onto a bridge over West Street and across Capital Boulevard.
The bridge would have a clearance of at least 17 feet over the pavement, with the rails about 9 feet higher than that.
The path would keep the new rails between Capital Boulevard and existing tracks - farther from homes and the freight yards.
"The impacts have been moved away from the neighborhoods and away from the freight railroads," said Marc Hamel, DOT project manager.
Project planners are still calculating how many businesses would be taken for the new route, but it appears their numbers would be reduced compared with the earlier plans. Right of way expenses could be lower, but the Capital Boulevard bridge is expected to push total costs higher.
One casualty of the boulevard bridge would be a DOT Rail Division office next to the CSX and DOT rail yards, where Hamel and a half dozen consultants explained the new route Friday. The new route map shows the trains coming right through the modular building where Hamel works.
"We're taking one for the team," Hamel joked.
DOT will not endorse any of the routes until after the Sept. 27 meeting, when Hamel said cost estimates and other details will be available. But Hamel said the new route will have an advantage with federal regulators because, unlike the other options, it would not affect any historic properties that enjoy federal protections.
Hamel said Norfolk Southern officials were consulted on the new plan, and some adjustments were made at their request. John Edwards, who oversees passenger policy planning for the railroad, declined to comment on the plan.
Kuhn could not be reached Friday for comment, and other Five Points residents said they were not familiar with details of the new proposal, identified by DOT engineers as NC5. It is outlined in a map available on the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor website, www.sehsr .org
Will Allen, co-chairman of a citizen task force that is advising the City Council on passenger rail issues, predicted the new NC5 option will be well-received.
"It's almost a miracle in that it meets everybody's desires and still provides a good entry for high-speed rail into downtown Raleigh," Allen said.
"I think it's a win-win for everybody. And how often does that happen?"