Turning the unused and overgrown Duke Beltline railroad into an inner-city greenway remains little more than idea, but on two fronts it's coming a little closer to reality.
"Nothing definitive," Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield said last week, "but it is taking baby steps along the way."
On one front, city transportation staff and a few interested citizens are meeting Monday morning to start work on a master plan for the trail - encouraged by a $200,000 federal planning grant awarded in September.
On the other front, the Conservation Fund - a Virginia nonprofit with a North Carolina office - has taken an interest in the Beltline and joined the city's purchase negotiations with the Norfolk Southern railroad.
Earlier this year, the city applied for planning money from the federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program. With the grant approved, the city is getting ready to use it - which is the reason for Monday's meeting.
"We got some good news - the people who support it, finally we can tell them something good is going on," said Reynolds Smith, an Open Space and Trails Commissioner who has, with others, kept the Beltline Trail idea alive.
Deal, no deal
The city, county, state DOT and advocates of trails for foot and bicycle traffic have had eyes on the Beltline for years. The two-mile corridor arcs around downtown, from West Village north across Trinity Avenue then turning east and running between the Old North Durham and Duke Park neighborhoods to Avondale Drive.
Brodie Duke, eldest son of tobacco tycoon Washington Duke, had the line built in 1892 to connect the Duke cigarette factory with a main rail line running north, literally getting around a protracted dispute between railroad companies over rights to the rail corridor downtown.
A few years later Duke sold the Beltline to the Norfolk & Western Railroad - now part of the Norfolk Southern company. Norfolk Southern ceased using the Beltline in the 1990s and by 2005 appeared ready to sell it - plus the rail corridor as far north as Person County - to the city, county and NCDOT for $6 million.
For reasons of its own, the railroad changed its mind. The trail remained just an idea, with interest reviving from time to time - in part, because Durham still had a $2 million federal earmark to put toward buying the property when and if Norfolk Southern was willing to sell.
The earmark is still available, said Dale McKeel, bicycle-pedestrian coordinator with the city transportation department, and the city is committing to a required 20 percent matching appropriation if the time comes.
For the moment, the planning grant is "a great opportunity to create a vision for this trail corridor and what it can do for Durham and the steps we need to take to make it a reality," McKeel said.
"A kind of feasibility study is what it amounts to," Smith said. "So we're going to have this meeting. ... We'll see what happens at the end. We're going to talk about raising money."
An ally in conservation
Durham officials again contacted Norfolk Southern about buying the rail corridor in 2013. The railroad offered to sell - for $7.1 million, for the Beltline alone. The city backed off.
Having the Conservation Fund on Durham's side may help. The 30-year-old Fund has helped conserve about 7 million acres of open space, according to its website ( conservationfund.org). Earlier this year, it assisted the town of Clayton in arranging a $1.2 million land purchase for a future park.
The Fund's North Carolina director is Bill Holman, a former N.C. secretary of natural and environmental resources who left an administrative job at Duke University to join the Conservation Fund in 2013.
"What I think makes this project interesting and exciting," Holman said, "is that it passes through the western side of the city, close to Duke University, and it has the potential to knit these neighborhoods together with the downtown area, which could help enhance the revitalization efforts already underway in Durham."
Currently, Bonfield said, the Conservation Fund is evaluating an appraisal of the Beltline.
"At the conclusion of that we'll be getting back with the Conservation Fund to try and nail down what we think is a reasonable price," Bonfield said. "I think that it's highly likely we'll be in a better position of knowing where we are by the end of the year - if not sooner."