Fast-train path would wipe out Thales Academy in Wake Forest

bsiceloff@newsobserver.com May 7, 2012 

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Bob Luddy founded Thales Academy.

ETHAN HYMAN — Ethan Hyman

  • Rail route update The state Department of Transportation will hold a public meeting May 15 to update its proposals for closing rail crossings, building bridges and routing trains through northern Wake County for a proposed high-speed shortcut between Raleigh and Richmond. These are changes from the plans aired in 2010 at public meetings for the proposed Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor. The meeting will be 4 to 7 p.m. at the North Raleigh Hilton, 3415 Wake Forest Road. Maps and information are at www.sehsr.org.

State rail planners have avoided ruining a community sports complex and a planned apartment project in Wake Forest – but now they say a proposed fast train to Richmond would wipe out a private school that serves 400 students.

The new recommended path for the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor runs through the Thales Academy K-5 school just east of the existing tracks near Rogers Road. It’s one of three Thales campuses in Wake County operated by Bob Luddy, a conservative political donor, businessman and education entrepreneur.

Rather than ask planners to find a different rail route, he flatly called on the state Department of Transportation to kill the fast-train project.

“We think the school is more important than building an obsolete railroad with money the federal government does not have to spend,” Luddy said Monday.

North Carolina and Virginia are spending nearly $600 million in federal money for fast-train improvements between Charlotte and Washington, D.C., and to complete the environmental study for the key Raleigh-to-Richmond segment. There are no prospects on the horizon for the additional money that would be needed, estimated at nearly $3 billion, before land acquisition and construction could begin on the Richmond shortcut.

The Thales proposal is one of several changes DOT engineers have made since they aired their plans and fielded public comment two years ago in northern Wake. At a May 15 public meeting at the North Raleigh Hilton, rail planners also will present proposals to:

• Run Elm Avenue under the tracks in Wake Forest, instead of closing it.

• Realign Steeple Run Drive in Wake Forest and Durant Road in North Raleigh to reduce neighborhood impacts near the rail line.

• Consider a bridge over the tracks to connect Wolfpack Lane with Highwoods Boulevard in North Raleigh, instead of closing Wolfpack.

Planners concluded that taking Luddy’s private nonprofit school would cause less harm than an alternative path DOT preferred originally.

That route would bring an end to Little League tournaments and other activities at the Factory, a private sports complex subsidized by Wake County just west of the existing tracks. And it would ruin plans for a big apartment complex approved by Wake Forest, said Marc Hamel, a DOT engineer overseeing the plans.

“It was a matter of balancing the impacts,” Hamel said. “The Factory complex apparently is pretty important to the town. We asked the Thales Academy for input, and they didn’t offer any. They just said, ‘We don’t like rail.’ ”

With an emphasis on classics and traditional educational techniques, the K-5 school on Heritage Trade Drive opened its doors in the fall of 2008. Luddy said the private nonprofit school, valued at $5.9 million on county tax rolls, will be relocated if the rail project is built.

“People don’t travel by railroad any more,” Luddy said. “They’re going to tear up a community for a feel-good, higher-speed railroad. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier/

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