Change target for trail money, advisory group says

Mar. 19, 2014 @ 05:13 PM

An advisory board wants city leaders to come up with a plan for $2 million in federal money earmarked for rail-to-trails projects that’s gone unused for 8½ years.
The money was originally supposed to go toward the purchase of downtown’s Duke Beltline and another rail corridor that belong to the Norfolk Southern Corp.
But acquisition talks with the railroad are stalled, and the Durham Open Space and Trails Commission is worried a deficit-conscious Congress will take back the money unless city officials find something else to use it on.
“In a budget year when we hear over and over again that funds are hard to come by for parks and trails, it would be unconscionable to lose over $2 million in federal funding for trails,” said LaDawnna Summers, the panel’s chairwoman.
The panel wants administrators and the City Council to plow the money instead into land purchases for the proposed Panther Creek Trail, which would run nearly five miles in eastern Durham from the Junction Road area northeast to Falls Lake.
Aside from putting the federal money to work, that would also help address the recreation needs of “an underserved yet growing part of our community,” Summers told City Council members this week.
The earmark is part of a 2005 bill that rewrote the legal framework for the billions in subsidies Congress gives the states each year for roadwork and other transportation projects.
Officials worked with U.S. Rep. David Price, D-4th, and other legislators to secure the allocation in hopes of using it for the Duke Beltline and the Timberlake corridor.
The Beltline circles downtown, while the Timberlake corridor runs from central Durham past Treyburn and Rougemont all the way into Person County.
But Norfolk Southern refused to sell the Timberlake line at all, and last year told city officials it wanted $7.1 million for the Beltline. City officials have voiced little interest in raising from local sources the $5 million-plus they’d need to add to the earmark to afford a deal with the company.
Though Durham officials always had a specific use in mind for the federal earmark, Congress didn’t actually restrict them to using the money for the Beltline and Timberlake corridor.
The 2005 bill said only that the $2 million was for the “acquisition of rail corridors for use as bicycle and pedestrian trails.” That to members of the advisory panel and other officials means it can be diverted to non-Beltline trail projects.
Summers and Councilman Steve Schewel, the council’s liaison to the trails commission, said it’s also possible to allot the money to Panther Creek and switch it back to the Beltline if the impasse with Norfolk Southern should end.
Panther Creek is “a legitimate option, a good option, just not the best option,” Schewel said. “The best option is to build the Beltline.”
The Panther Creek corridor is part of Durham’s long-term trail planning, but has some complications to it.
One is that the former rail corridor supporters want to use doesn’t belong anymore to a railroad company, meaning officials would have to negotiate purchases from a variety of individual owners.
“There would be numerous parcels to acquire in that corridor,” city Transportation Director Mark Ahrendsen said.
Another issue is that much of the Panther Creek corridor lies outside the city limits, meaning city leaders would most likely want the County Commissioners to contribute, Schewel said.
And “the county doesn’t usually do trails,” leaving such projects to the city while focusing instead on open-space purchases, he said.
To use the earmark, officials would have to come up with local matching funds.
Because of the rules surrounding federal aid, they would only be able to put about $1.7 million of the earmark to work and would need to match that with about $425,000 in local money, Ahrendsen said.
The trails commission believes the city doesn’t need to dip into tax revenues to cover that, as it has a stockpile of “impact fee” money developers in eastern Durham have paid over the years to finance public infrastructure benefiting their projects.
Schewel said city administrators “definitely are looking hard” at the Panther Creek option, but will also weigh in on whether they think the commission’s fears about losing the $2 million are justified.

City Manager Tom Bonfield said he expects further discussion to occur during the council’s fiscal 2014-15 budget talks later this spring.
As for the chances of losing the earmark, “there’s no hard evidence to say it’s going to happen,” Bonfield said. “But clearly there’s a recognition that every year that goes by, there’s a greater chance it would be withdrawn.”

Monday’s request marked the second time in recent years the commission has asked officials to use the earmark on Panther Creek.

It also floated the idea in 2009, but the proposal didn’t go anywhere then because “there were still ongoing discussions and hopes” about working out a deal with Norfolk Southern for the Beltline, Ahrendsen said.