Mayor Bill Bell has joined the effort to change Norfolk Southern railroad’s mind about selling its unused rail corridor through Durham.
On March 6, Bell signed a letter asking former UNC President and White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles to use his influence as a member of the Norfolk Southern’s board “to reopen the conversation.”
The letter was drafted by the Durham Open Space and Trails Commission for signing by Bell, state Sen. Mike Woodard and Duke University President Richard Brodhead.
The corridor includes a “Belt Line” arc from the N.C. Railroad right of way downtown, at West Village, north across Trinity Avenue and then east between the Old North Durham and Duke Park neighborhoods. It then connects with a line, built by the Lynchburg and Durham railroad in 1890, running north into Person County.
Local authorities have sought to buy the corridor for a pedestrian/bicycle greenway and possible future use in a commuter rail system.
Norfolk Southern appeared ready to sell the corridor to the city, Durham County and N.C. Department of Transportation for $6 million in 2005, but backed out and has not responded to requests to talk again.
Members of the Open Space and Trails Commission and others revived interest in buying the right-of-way last year. The InterNeighborhood Council adopted a resolution of support in February.
Some of the money was to come from a federal earmark arranged by U.S. Rep. David Price, and the Bell-Woodard-Brodhead letter expresses concern that the earmark may soon become unavailable.
According to the letter, its signatories hope Norfolk Southern executives “will view this project as a shared endeavor, not only as an asset for Durham and not only as a financial transaction, but as a public relations opportunity for the railroad.”
Brodie Duke, eldest son of tobacco-company founder Washington Duke, led a community drive to build the Belt Line in 1892, connecting the Duke cigarette factory with the Lynchburg and Durham. Access to the factory from the Lynchburg and Durham terminal at Dillard Street was controlled by the competing Richmond and Danville, which was already in prolonged litigation with a third railroad over right of way.
Trains have not run on the Belt Line since the 1980s.