Draft of rail-crossing study released

Sep. 27, 2013 @ 06:41 PM

A state-funded study suggests that officials should consider eventually closing four little-traveled railroad crossings in Durham to improve safety and facilitate greater use of the N.C. Railroad corridor.

The draft study also recommended long-term efforts to “grade-separate” several major crossings, among them the crossings that take the railroad over Blackwell and Mangum streets in downtown near the Durham Performing Arts Center and Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

Officials released the draft this week and are planning a City Council public hearing on it for Oct. 21. They’ll gather comment and send it on to consultants and the state in preparation for work on the final version of the study.

The N.C. Department of Transportation, the city and other players commissioned the analysis to set the stage for future funding applications, said Wesley Parham, assistant transportation director for the city.

“To get your toe in the door for some [funding] sources, you have to show you’ve at least done some master planning to show what your priorities are and what the improvements may be,” said Parham, who cautioned that both the design suggestions and cost estimates in the document are conceptual and subject to years of further refinement.

Engineers hired to work on the study examined 18 at-grade rail crossings in Durham, from Neal Road on the western edge of town to Cornwallis Road on the eastern edge of RTP.

Rules of thumb used in the trade would suggest all but three as candidates for grade separation – bridging roads over tracks or tracks over roads – given current volumes of rail traffic, the study says.

But practicalities led engineers to discard the idea of completely rebuilding some of the crossings, most notably two near Duke University, at Swift Avenue and on Anderson Street.

There, all-new crossings likely would cause massive disruptions to traffic patterns or displace too much existing development to be economic, Parham said.

There was also substantial neighborhood opposition.

The four crossings engineers think can be someday be closed are downtown or in east Durham. West to east, they’re at Dillard Street, Ramseur Street, Plum Street and Wrenn Road.

All serve modest amounts of traffic and are in places where it can be diverted to other roads. The most active, at Plum Street, serves about 2,300 vehicles a day.

But in comment-gathering forums, residents and business owners already have signaled that they’d like to keep the crossings open, to retain access to nearby businesses or so they can continue as alternatives to using busier crossings nearby.

Each of the closings would involve more than just removing pavement. The study suggests installing new pedestrian crossings at some, and building new routes for traffic at others.

The grade-separating bridging projects that engineers endorsed are all long-term endeavors, likely taking years or decades to finance, design and build should they ever receive administrative and political support.

Engineers listed each as likely to take longer than seven years – a timeline that alludes to the period North Carolina’s statewide transportation improvement program covers and that therefore implies little chance of adding them to a construction schedule any time soon.

The largest and most costly by far would address the Blackwell and Mangum crossings.

Study authors suggest replacing the existing crossings by raising the railroad a couple of feet and lowering the beds of the two streets so they can pass under the tracks, Parham said.

As part of such a project, engineers also suggest replacing the existing railroad bridge over Roxboro Street, which has clearance problems.

The study pegs the potential cost of all that work at $43 million, but that likely understates matters considerably because it only covers construction. Design costs, right-of-way acquisition and potential utility relocation bills aren’t included in the estimate.

Parham said the estimate is useful mainly as a tool for comparing the project to others the study suggests. All told, engineers saw at least about $163 million worth of work involved in replacing crossings or upgrading existing ones along the railroad in Durham.

The study and a number of supporting documents are available on the city’s Web site at