Council lukewarm to study’s advice on rail crossings

Oct. 13, 2013 @ 07:43 PM

City Council members have signaled they’re reluctant to give a full endorsement by year’s end to an engineering study that calls for closing four little-traveled railroad crossings.

Discussing the report in advance of an Oct. 21 public hearing, members said they would be more interested in picking out a couple of top-priority crossing-improvement projects to get them in the queue for state funding.

But beyond that, “I am not comfortable approving street closings,” Councilman Steve Schewel said.

Schewel was alluding to the engineers’ advice that the state and city plan to do away with crossings at Dillard Street, Ramseur Street, Plum Street and Wrenn Road.

All four are downtown or in east Durham, and serve only modest amounts of traffic. The busiest, at Plum Street, serves about 2,300 vehicles a day.

But the idea of closing them has drawn opposition from residents who worry about the potential for disrupting the movement of cars and trucks, blocking routes used by pedestrians or for harming nearby businesses.

The study, funded largely by the N.C. Department of Transportation, is supposed to set the stage for future increases in train traffic along the N.C. Railroad corridor that bisects central Durham.

The route, in addition to accommodating freight traffic, may see more use by passenger trains if planning for a regional, rail-based transit system someday bears fruit.

Engineers say the state and city need to plan on “grade-separating” a number of key crossings, bridging tracks over roads or roads over tracks in places where they now occupy the same ground.

The most high-profile such project would target the railroad’s existing intersections with Blackwell and Mangum streets in downtown, near the Durham Performing Arts Center and Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

Wesley Parham, the city’s assistant transportation director, told council members that the city and state will face increased pressure to decide on a strategy for dealing with the Blackwell and Mangum crossings as planning for a transit expansion advances.

With those, “time is short here in terms of making an ultimate decision,” he said.

Members hinted that the Blackwell/Mangum project could well be one of the ones they ask DOT to evaluate as it implements the new project-ranking system legislators and Gov. Pat McCrory approved earlier this year.

They also took heart from assurances that the various suggested projects all would require further, more detailed study before ever receiving a go-ahead.

The point now is to guard against the possibility that “at some point in future, [DOT is] going to say that, ‘Back in December 2013, the die was cast,’” Councilman Don Moffitt said.

Schewel also said he’d want the council to use the study’s recommendations as bargaining chips in dealing with the Norfolk Southern Corp., the railroad that operates on the state-owned tracks.

“I would be reluctant to approve some of these things without some discussion with Norfolk Southern about some of our community’s desires as well as some of their desires,” he said.

Local officials believe the company wants the existing line double-tracked and most, if not all, of the existing crossings closed or grade-separated, he said.

Durham officials in turn would want its cooperation with local transit initiatives and on issues like a transfer of the Duke Beltline, the unused track that loops around the west and north sides of downtown, he said.

City officials want to acquire the Beltline for a future rails-to-trail greenway like the American Tobacco Trail. But Norfolk Southern, which owns the right of way, recently said it wanted $7.1 million for it. The city has only about $2 million in local and federal funds available for such a purchase.