Durham News

Light rail plan makes Pettigrew Street a ‘transitway’

A cross section of the Pettigrew Street ‘transitway,’ looking east toward a light-rail station at the Durham Station bus terminal.
A cross section of the Pettigrew Street ‘transitway,’ looking east toward a light-rail station at the Durham Station bus terminal. Courtesy Triangle Transit

Triangle Transit last week brought forth a new idea for the proposed light-rail line in Durham, which involves converting downtown Pettigrew Street into a multi-purpose “transitway.”

Up to now, the plan was to build light-rail tracks alongside the existing rail lines used by Amtrak and Norfolk Southern freight trains. The new plan shifts most of the light-rail track slightly to the south, and moves some of the proposed station sites.

The change offers some advantages, said Patrick McDonough, senior planner with Triangle Transit (TTA), such as moving the downtown station closer to American Tobacco and improving access for neighborhoods near Alston Avenue and N.C. Central University.

But it also requires some major study on how to handle automobile traffic downtown, and negotiations with property owners along the new route who would not have been affected before – including Duke University.

The new alignment also all but eliminates the prospect of elevated rail tracks that would create a “great wall” between the downtown core and the American Tobacco-DPAC district to the south.

“Which we’re ecstatic about,” said Dan Jewell, president of the Durham Area Designers group devoted to good urban design. “I am glad the great wall is gone.”

The ‘transitway’

Re-routing the Durham-Chapel Hill Light Rail Transit System – as the line is formally called – came about because the North Carolina Railroad (NCRR), which owns the railroad corridor through downtown, has plans of its own, McDonough said.

The NCRR, which is publicly owned but leases its tracks to Norfolk Southern, plans to add tracks to handle increased freight and passenger traffic. That didn’t leave room for the double track Triangle Transit needs for its light-rail system running from Alston Avenue in East Durham to UNC Hospitals.

Pettigrew Street, which actually is within the NCRR’s 200-foot wide right-of-way, presented an apparently workable alternative.

The proposed Pettigrew Street Transitway is, arguably, the greatest departure from the original plan.

From Chapel Hill Street east past Dillard Street, Pettigrew would become one-way, with a single, eastbound lane for private motor vehicles and light-rail tracks in the middle and north side (westbound) lane.

Buses and emergency vehicles, though, would be allowed to use the transitway’s westbound lane (closest to the existing railroad embankment), preserving access to the Durham Station bus depot.

The downtown light-rail station, originally planned between Duke and Chapel Hill streets at the former Amtrak station site, is moved east, next to the bus terminal.

No wall alternative

The new route also calls for closing a section of Pettigrew Street between Erwin Road and Campus Drive, and relocates the eastern terminal to the west side of Alston Avenue.

Moving the Alston station, McDonough said, eliminates the need for TTA to share a new bridge with the NCRR, and affords better access to N.C. Central University via Grant and Lincoln streets.

For downtown residents and urban designers, the new alignment is a relief. With the light rail expected to add as many as 150 trains per day running through downtown, consultants working on safety improvements at Durham grade crossings had suggested raising the existing railroad bed 10 feet and lowering Mangum and Blackwell/Corcoran streets to run through tunnels under the tracks.

The idea met vehement opposition from residents who saw the proposal as further dividing the downtown that the railroad already divides. “For the time being,” the wall remains on the area’s long-range transportation plan, city Transportation Director Mark Ahrendsen said, but with the light rail set apart from the freight tracks, the great wall is for all practical purposes off the drawing boards.

Downtown homeowner Marcia McNally said that’s a “first step” toward knitting downtown’s two sides of the tracks together.

“But we have many more opportunities to do a splendid job in the process of designing light rail as it comes through our city,” McNally said.