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A new Raleigh tunnel would carry downtown traffic under railroad tracks

The railroad crossing at Cabarrus Street in downtown Raleigh would be closed under the city’s plans.
The railroad crossing at Cabarrus Street in downtown Raleigh would be closed under the city’s plans. The News & Observer

Sometime in the 19th century, West Street on the edge of downtown Raleigh was cut in two at the railroad junction known as the Boylan Wye.

Now the city wants to reconnect the two parts of the street by building a tunnel under the railroad tracks. City officials say a reconnected West Street, between Cabarrus and Martin streets, would better serve cars, pedestrians and cyclists getting to and from the new Raleigh Union Station and the new office and apartment buildings on the west side of downtown.

But even as it reconnects one street, the city’s plan would sever another. The railroad crossing at Cabarrus Street would be closed, blocking a route people now take to drive, walk and bike between downtown and westside neighborhoods such as Boylan Heights.

The city has been thinking about extending West Street across the Boylan Wye since the 1960s. By 2012, it had developed two options: a tunnel under the tracks or a bridge over them. The bridge proved unpopular, in part because the approaches at either end would have blocked Cabarrus and Martin streets, and the idea was eventually dropped.

Now the project has reached another milestone, with the publication of a report that describes the environmental impacts of the tunnel. The city is seeking public feedback on the report, which can be found on the project’s website, nando.com/boylanwye. The deadline to make comments is March 30.

The tunnel would carry two lanes of traffic, sidewalks and bicycle lanes under the tracks, including part of the new platform for Raleigh Union Station. Coming from the north, West Street would descend just south of Martin Street, in front of Union Station, and emerge from the tunnel on the south side next to the existing Amtrak station. The old station will eventually be demolished after Union Station opens later this spring.

When city officials presented the tunnel and bridge options at a public workshop in 2013, several people who live west of the tracks urged the city to keep the Cabarrus Street crossing open, if only for pedestrians and cyclists.

Anna Lynch, the owner of a structural engineering firm who lives on South Saunders Street a block west of the Amtrak station, says she’s a fan of extending West Street but would miss the ease of walking or riding across the tracks at Cabarrus Street to get to the Warehouse District or downtown beyond.

“We obviously walk downtown a lot, or ride our bikes,” Lynch said. “That’s why we live downtown.”

Closing a street as part of a project to make it easier to get around the west side of downtown seems counterintuitive, said Domino Ireland, who lives on Rosengarten Alley, off Cabarrus Street.

“It’s hypocritical to block direct foot traffic to downtown, to have Cabarrus just end right there,” Ireland said. “It’s one of the widest streets downtown, and it’s well used.”

The city wants to close the Cabarrus crossing to improve safety, says Eric Lamb, the city’s transportation planning manager. The city’s goal is to reduce the number of at-grade crossings along the rail corridor, Lamb said, and Cabarrus Street is one of the last ones downtown.

“Our goal is to make it a sealed corridor with respect to the existing Amtrak and freight trains and the upcoming planned passenger rail service that we’ll have in the corridor as part of the Wake Transit plan,” he said. “The number of trains is going to increase.”

City planners say pedestrians and cyclists could use Lenoir and South streets, which go under railroad bridges, or the West Street tunnel itself.

It’s not clear when the tunnel would be built, Lamb says. The transportation bond approved by voters in the fall authorizes the city to borrow $10 million for the project – $3 million for design and engineering work and $7 million that the city would put up to try to win a federal grant, he said.

The tunnel is expected to cost $35 million to $40 million, Lamb said. The city wants to complete the planning so that it is able to begin construction when federal money becomes available, he said.

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling

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