Is a tunnel the solution to getting light-rail trains through downtown Durham?

This crossing at Blackwell, Corcoran and Pettigrew streets could be closed if a GoTriangle plan proposed in October for the Durham-Orange light-rail line goes through. Local stakeholders are concerned the closing will be a bad move for downtown’s vibrancy.
This crossing at Blackwell, Corcoran and Pettigrew streets could be closed if a GoTriangle plan proposed in October for the Durham-Orange light-rail line goes through. Local stakeholders are concerned the closing will be a bad move for downtown’s vibrancy. Contributed

A tunnel may be the solution for running the Durham-Orange light-rail trains through downtown Durham without closing a critical railroad crossing, GoTriangle officials said Friday evening.

Few details were available immediately, including the cost of building the tunnel and how far it would run underground. The tunnel has to meet environmental and railroad requirements, GoTriangle spokesman Mike Charbonneau said in a news release.

Project staff also must find funding to build the tunnel in the project’s $2.47 billion construction budget.

The Blackwell Street tunnel would be the line’s second underground section. A revised plan also calls for a tunnel under the intersection of Shannon Road and University Drive, near the South Square Station, to avoid conflicts with heavy traffic there.

“I am excited that we have all come together — community stakeholders and GoTriangle staff — with a solution that addresses the needs for a vibrant downtown and ensures that we are moving forward with the successful implementation of the transformational Durham Orange Light Rail Project,” Durham County Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs said.

The new plan has been submitted to the Federal Transit Administration for its evaluation of the light-rail project, Charbonneau said. He noted the public, Durham leaders and downtown business owners will help shape the tunnel’s design.

GoTriangle and Durham leaders have been working with downtown stakeholders to find an alternative to closing the rail crossing. The tunnel was presented to the stakeholders group on Thursday, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said.

“We gathered 50 downtown stakeholders together on Thursday, and there was strong support in the group for the tunnel taking the light rail under Blackwell and Mangum streets,” he said. “We’ll be incurring significant costs with this solution, but it will allow us to get the light rail built, and that’s crucial for our region over the next 100 years.”

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The change is expected to resolve concerns that downtown business owners and boosters expressed after learning this fall that a revised light-rail plan could close the N.C. Railroad crossing at Blackwell, Corcoran and Pettigrew streets.

Downtown boosters are concerned that closing the central link between the downtown core and the American Tobacco campus and other destinations to the south could stall or harm decades of work to revive the downtown area.

Two members of the GoTransit Partners, a nonprofit fundraising group for the light rail project, resigned their board seats in November over the planned closing.

Michael Goodmon, senior vice president of Capitol Broadcasting Co., and Brad Brinegar, chairman of the advertising agency McKinney also joined Bob Klaus, general manager of the Durham Performing Arts Center, in asking the Durham City Council to delay the light rail until another solution was found.

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Norfolk Southern also expressed concerns about its railroad operations, Charbonneau said. The tunnel will keep Blackwell Street open, minimize potential impacts to the historic Old Bull buildiing at Blackwell and Pettigrew streets, and remove conflicts between cars and rail traffic, he said.

It also will allow a 19th light-rail station near DPAC to remain part of the plan. The additional station would be located between a stop at the Durham Station, where riders could connect with other transit options, and a stop at Dillard Street.

“This appears to be an excellent solution that not only maintains the existing street network in the area but minimizes the impact on the appearance of the Old Bull building at a design pinch point,” Durham County Commissioner and GoTriangle Board Chair Ellen Reckhow said.

It was not clear whether the plan for a tunnel would affect related plans to change some downtown streets. Durham City Council members voted last week that they are open to making some streets one-way or two-way. Other potential changes include making part of Pettigrew Street one-way, making part of Ramseur Street two-way and making part of Dillard Street one-way.

Still outstanding is the path that light rail could take on Erwin Road. The latest plan elevates the rail tracks through that corridor, but Duke University officials have said they are not convinced the rail line won’t have negative effects on Duke’s medical and research buildings.

The 17.7-mile light-rail line would link UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill with Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham, and points in between. With interest on construction debt, the project’s costs are expected to grow to over $3 billion.

The Federal Transit Administration could pay up to $1.23 billion toward construction, with another $190 million coming from the state. Durham and Orange counties would be responsible for the remaining $988 million in construction costs, plus interest on debt.

Staff writer Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan contributed to this story.

Tammy Grubb has written about Orange County’s politics, people and government since 2010. She is a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and has lived and worked in the Triangle for over 25 years.