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More criticism of GoTriangle, despite light-rail tunnel planned for downtown Durham

This map released by GoTriangle on Friday shows where the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit line would run underground though downtown Durham and then run on elevated tracks on two proposed bridges.
This map released by GoTriangle on Friday shows where the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit line would run underground though downtown Durham and then run on elevated tracks on two proposed bridges. GoTriangle

GoTriangle is getting more criticism from a Durham business leader even after making a major change to plans for light-rail tracks downtown.

After leaders of the Durham Performing Arts Center and American Tobacco Campus balked at closing Blackwell Street to traffic for the project, a private meeting of downtown stakeholders was held to come up with an alternative — even though GoTriangle told DPAC months ago it was too late for any major changes.

The proposed underground tunnel was a late change to the $2.47 billion Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project, a 19-stop, 18-mile project now in its engineering phase.

The planned line runs from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to N.C. Central University in Durham. A plan this fall to close Blackwell Street to pedestrian and vehicle traffic drew criticism from DPAC and Capitol Broadcasting, which owns the American Tobacco Campus and the Durham Bulls. DPAC general manager Bob Klaus told city leaders it was “a mistake.”

On Wednesday, Klaus wrote city leaders another letter, saying that DPAC supports the tunnel plan, but still isn’t happy with GoTriangle.

“You listened. The same cannot be said for GoTriangle, however,” Klaus wrote.

“We met with GoTriangle twice in October. We discovered that its attitude was that there was not enough time and not enough money to change anything about its plan,” the letter continued. “As the future unfolds, please continue to impress upon GoTriangle that it must take the concerns that you have heard from us and other downtown businesses seriously, which means that GoTriangle must modify the design to account for those concerns as the design process unfolds.”

The tunnel — and now two bridges — are the solution GoTriangle has now submitted to the Federal Transit Administration to solve the Blackwell Street closing issue, as well as make sure the light rail and railroad are not at the same level as five rail crossings downtown.

But nobody knows how much that tunnel could cost, or who will pay for it.

And that doesn’t count the cost of possibly placing the route’s proposed 19th stop, at Blackwell and Mangum streets, underground, too.

The private meeting

GoTriangle’s initial plan to close Blackwell Street prompted the chairman and another member of the light-rail fundraising board to resign. Michael Goodmon, senior vice president of Capitol Broadcasting Co., and Brad Brinegar, chairman of the advertising agency McKinney, both quit the GoTransit Partners Board of Directors last month.

Then, last week a private meeting of downtown stakeholders and elected officials was held to talk about Blackwell Street. Durham County Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs told The Herald-Sun and News & Observer the meeting would be taking place, but not the time or location.

In an interview Thursday, Mayor Steve Schewel said the Dec. 13 meeting wasn’t public because there was not a quorum of elected officials and that “we needed a frank discussion outside the news media.”

At the meeting were representatives of GoTriangle, the Durham City Council, the Durham County Board of Commissioners, Downtown Durham Inc., DPAC, N.C. Department of Transportation, Capitol Broadcasting and the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, he said.

The next day, Dec 14, GoTriangle submitted the proposed downtown tunnel to the Federal Transit Administration.

The tunnel would run under Pettigrew Street, Schewel said, and could include part of the planned station between Blackwell and Mangum streets, which he called the DPAC Station. “The DPAC station will probably start underground, but that’s unclear,” he said.

Schewel said he was meeting with railroad officials Thursday. North Carolina Railroad owns the tracks and Norfolk Southern Railroad is its tenant. Schewel said they planned to discuss the rail design that separates the two modes of transit.

The grade separations also would require building a new bridge downtown at Fayetteville and Dillard streets, with light rail running on the bridge and cars traveling beneath it. At Duke Street, the road would be on a new bridge and light rail below.

Where’s the money?

So how would GoTriangle pay for the tunnel?

Schewel said the price GoTriangle submitted to the FTA for the grade separations, including the tunnel, is $65 million in current dollars, so that could be $80 million by the time it is built, he said.

“We don’t know the amount,” he said.

According to Smart Cities Dive, underground light rail tunnels can cost more than $100 million per mile.

There are several ways the tunnel and other crossing could be funded, the mayor said, including a private fundraising campaign and from $179 million of unallocated contingency money in the overall budget. GoTriangle staff and consultants will work in early January to figure out the grade separations design and funding, he said.

There are already utility tunnels under downtown Durham. “I feel confident we will be able to build the tunnel,” Schewel said, but “you never know what’s underground,” including rock.

John Tallmadge, who is leading the light-rail project for GoTriangle, told The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer that it is “not yet known where the additional funds would come from for the change [in the plan] to a tunnel in downtown Durham.”

“It is important to note that this is Durham and Orange counties’ light-rail project and elected officials in those two counties, along with the GoTriangle Board of Trustees, will determine how to proceed,” Talmadge said in an email.

Schewel said if private fundraising falls short, it is too soon to say how the funding might come together and how taxpayers might be affected.

“That is what we will be looking at,” he said.

Pettigrew Street

In Klaus’ letter Wednesday to city leaders, he said he supports the tunnel solution but remains concerned about GoTriangle’s plan to make Pettigrew Street one-way.

“The decision to convert the only two-way street south of the railroad tracks into a one-way, eastbound street is ill-considered,” he wrote.

DPAC wants the city to insist on keeping Pettigrew a two-way street. It is also worried about how light-rail construction will impact DPAC and other downtown businesses, especially with the addition of a tunnel.

Klaus declined to comment beyond the letter on Thursday.

Schewel emailed Klaus back, saying he appreciated “hearing your continuing important concerns, and I can assure you that the City and GoTriangle will take them very seriously.”

“I will give my personal attention to that as the project moves forward,” Schewel told Klaus.

The city “would prefer to keep Pettigrew two-way, but we don’t know yet,” Schewel said in an interview Thursday. “It’s certainly important.”

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