The chairman and a member of the Durham-Orange light-rail project fundraising board have resigned over the project’s possible impact on a key downtown Durham corridor.
Michael Goodmon, senior vice president of Capitol Broadcasting Co., resigned from the GoTransit Partners Board of Directors on Tuesday, after meeting with Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, GoTriangle leaders and others about a plan to close the downtown railroad crossing at Blackwell, Corcoran and Pettigrew streets to pedestrian and vehicle traffic.
Brad Brinegar, chairman of the advertising agency McKinney, resigned from his seat on the seven-member board in a Nov. 5 letter.
The plan was proposed in October, alarming downtown stakeholders, including American Tobacco, Durham Bulls and DPAC, who fear it will split the city’s core from their properties to the south and harm years of work to create a thriving downtown. In a letter, they asked the Durham City Council to delay light-rail construction until there’s a better solution.
Goodmon, the board’s chairman, said in an email Wednesday there has been “no substantive movement” to avoid closing the crossing and that public transparency about the issue is inadequate.
Capitol Broadcasting will “oppose any project, either now or in the future, that results in the closing of this vital artery,” he said, while noting the support that downtown partners have given to transit planning.
Capitol Broadcasting owns the American Tobacco Campus, WRAL and the Durham Bulls. In 2016 it paid nearly $29 million for additional property west of the American Tobacco Campus, according to Durham County property records.
John Tallmadge, GoTriangle’s interim project manager, said in an email that GoTriangle respects the decisions and appreciates the time and work both men have put into the project.
“Michael especially has been a tremendous advocate for the light rail, understanding what an opportunity it will provide to our communities,” Tallmadge said. “Without him, the progress we have achieved so far would not have been possible. We cannot thank Michael enough for his outstanding leadership and his commitment to our community.”
The resignations come as the Federal Transit Administration is completing a final light-rail project risk assessment. GoTriangle must submit a project application to the FTA by April for $1.24 billion in federal funding — half of the project’s $2.47 billion construction cost.
It also comes as GoTriangle and Durham leaders are working with Duke University and its medical center to resolve concerns about the downtown crossing and a planned elevated section of the light-rail line on Erwin Road, and at a crucial time for the GoTransit Partners.
GoTriangle formed the nonprofit GoTransit Partners last year to raise roughly $102.5 million in land and financial donations toward construction. Only $14.5 million worth of land has been committed — by UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University.
American Tobacco could rethink any anticipated cash or land donations if the corridor is closed, Goodmon said.
Raising Pettigrew Street
The current light-rail route runs 17.7 miles from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham. It would parallel an existing freight line from roughly Brightleaf Square in downtown Durham to Alston Avenue.
Engineers finalizing the plan, however, found Pettigrew Street would have to be raised by several feet at Blackwell Street. The change would create an awkward height difference between the downtown core and properties to the south, particularly affecting a historic building at the corner, GoTriangle officials said.
While the existing railroad crossing long has been identified as a barrier between the city core and the American Tobacco Campus, plans for downtown Durham have advocated improving the corridor.
GoTriangle has offered to work with downtown stakeholders on a “signature civic space” with an alternate pedestrian connection. Goodmon said they have been asked to serve on an advisory panel to look at design options, but that panel has not met, and they are concerned the objections aren’t being taken seriously.
A bigger barrier blocking the view of downtown, created by elevating the tracks, still would be better than losing the connection altogether, he said.
“The dismemberment of downtown Durham is a significant issue that has dire long-term implications and simply cannot be settled in the amount of time provided, regardless of the intent of the parties,” Goodmon said.
He also noted that conversations with GoTriangle’s engineers revealed a pedestrian bridge could span several hundred feet and be almost 50 feet tall at its peak to meet the topographical changes on either side of the tracks.
Tallmadge acknowledged the “civic space” has not been designed, but GoTriangle has $20 million, plus $2 million for design and engineering, budgeted for the final design.
He noted that work on crossing alternatives is ongoing, including meetings with NCDOT Rail Division, NC Railroad and Durham city staff. Other partners will be included in those discussions, he said.
DDI, Chamber of Commerce weigh in
Downtown Durham Inc. officials offered a way forward in an Oct. 22 letter to Tallmadge.
The letter, from DDI Chief Executive Officer Nicole Thompson and board Chairwoman Jessica Brock, outlines multiple concerns with how the project could affect at-grade crossings, traffic, parking and downtown connections. Chief among them, they said, is the Blackwell Street rail crossing, which also is part of the Maine-to-Florida East Coast Greenway, the American Tobacco Trail and the future Durham Beltline Trail.
“It is also part of Durham’s smART corridor, the outgrowth of a community process to create a walkable, art-filled corridor linking neighborhoods south of downtown with neighborhoods to the north of downtown,” the women said.
If the crossing must be closed, DDI’s board and staff “strongly believe” the signature civic space that replaces it must provide a high-quality, high-capacity pedestrian and bike crossing, they added. The letter proposes a schedule for drafting a design that meets the April deadline for submitting the project to the FTA.
The Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce also has weighed in, sending a memo Tuesday to its members about the proposed Blackwell Street closing. The memo reiterates the chamber’s commitment to the value of transit but encourages members to say “whether it’s time to re-envision the whole project.”
A grassroots conversation among restaurants and businesses in the corridor also is growing, Goodmon said.