Dubious voices concerned about rail crossing advice
Downtown interests are voicing reservations about some of the advice the City Council’s getting from engineers about the future of several rail crossings in the heart of the central business district.
Representatives of Downtown Durham Inc. and the county government told council members on Monday they are dubious of a proposal to put Dillard Street on a list of at-grade crossings to consider closing sometime years from now.
They agreed with North-East Central Durham activists who said losing Dillard’s crossing of the N.C. Railroad would make it harder for people to circulate between the northern and southern sides of the city center.
Especially after current or former car dealerships south of the tracks are redeveloped, Dillard will be “an important part of [downtown’s] connectivity,” said DDI President Geoff Durham. “For this reason, we don’t support the alternative of closing the Dillard Street crossing.”
Deputy County Manager Lee Worsley added that Dillard is also an important link between the county’s new Human Services complex on Main Street, the headquarters of its General Services Department and the new courthouse off Mangum Street.
Worsley said a closing of Dillard and three other road/rail crossings east of downtown could also hurt response times of the county’s Emergency Medical Services.
He questioned whether consultants had reckoned with that, or with the effects of temporary street closures associated with the construction of the Human Services complex on traffic counts.
Consultants advised the council to consider closing Dillard and the other three crossings because they handle relatively little traffic.
Meanwhile, a group of local architects also urged the council on Monday to seek better ideas for handling downtown’s two most high-profile crossings, those that carry traffic on Mangum and Blackwell streets over the tracks.
Engineers say those should be “grade separated” so cars and trains won’t clash as rail traffic grows. They advise raising the tracks a bit and lowering the streets, effectively tunneling them under the railroad.
But that risks hurting the pedestrian traffic between businesses inside the loop and attractions to the south such as the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the Durham Performing Arts Center and the American Tobacco complex, members of the Durham Area Designers said.
The cure outlined in the crossing study “is far worse than the existing situation,” said Randy Hester, one of three spokespeople for the group during Monday’s public hearing.
The suggested street-lowerings also would affect Ramseur and Pettigrew streets, which parallel the railroad on either side of the tracks and therefore cross Mangum and Blackwell.
Should future designers adopt the study’s suggested solution, they’d wind up creating, “beginning halfway down from Main Street on Blackwell, a concrete channel that eventually gets to 12 feet tall by the time you get to Ramseur,” Hester said. “This will be a terrible pedestrian experience.”
The criticism of the study’s advice came after an engineer who worked on it, Matt West, told council members its advice “is consistent with what we heard from the public” along the way.
The discrepency didn’t escape Councilman Eugene Brown, who joked about putting a stop-payment order on any checks to the consultants.
“Something is amiss here,” he said.
But administrators and other council members noted that the study was supposed to be conceptual.
The point, West said, was to show it’s at least theoretically possible to engineer grade-separated crossings for some of the streets.
Further specifics would await street-by-street feasibility studies, and “we stopped well below where a feasibility study would begin,” he said.
Council members have signaled that they’re likely to eventually accept the report without offering a formal endorsement of its recommendations.
Mayor Bill Bell called the document “a start” and said he’d expected it to be
“a straw man” to spark debate about the best way to handle increasing rail traffic in a downtown split by the railroad.
State and local officials launched the study in 2011, the city picking up 10 percent of the bill for work also funded by the N.C. Department of Transportation, the Norfolk Southern Corp. and Triangle Transit.
Engineers wound up examining 18 crossings up and down the N.C. Railroad in Durham.