City, railroad may restart Duke Beltline talks

May. 22, 2013 @ 06:43 PM

City officials and the Norfolk Southern Corp. are preparing for a new round of talks on the potential city purchase of the former Duke Beltline, a rail spur that loops around the western and northern edges of downtown.

The possibility emerged earlier after Mayor Bill Bell wrote a member of the railroad’s board of directors, former UNC System President Erskine Bowles, to ask for his help.

City officials would like to acquire the Beltline to put it in the local rails-to-trails program, along with the American Tobacco Trail. They and railroad officials discussed the possibility in the mid-2000s, but talks broke down over price.

A Norfolk Southern vice president, John Friedmann, wrote Bell on March 27 to say the company is “receptive to participating” in new negotiations but would insist on receiving “fair market value” for the property.

An updated appraisal of the line is under way, and has to be completed before talks can begin, company Senior Real Estate Manager Kristi Blair told City Manager Tom Bonfield on Wednesday.

Friedmann in his March letter said Norfolk Southern would also want the city, as part of any deal for the Beltline, to agree to close a railroad crossing in east Durham at the intersection of Ellis Road and Angier Avenue.

The crossing has “had too many close calls and reported incidents,” and its closure “must be part of any substantial dialogue” between the two sides, Friedmann said.

The incidents included one in 2009 that caused the death of two children after an Amtrak train struck the SUV in which they were riding.

Both the closure request and the cost of a Beltline purchase could be problematic for the city.

Its transportation director, Mark Ahrendsen, said Wednesday officials have commitments of about $2 million in federal and local funds for acquisition of the Beltline.

Whether that would stretch far enough to cover a market-priced deal for the entire route is unclear. The Beltline runs from the Durham Station area past West Village and the Durham Athletic Park before turning east to reach the intersection of Avondale Drive and East Trinity Avenue.

In the past, advocates of a rail-to-trail conversion have sought control of the Beltline via “a donation of the line or a greatly discounted sale,” Friedmann said.

While Norfolk Southern “goes to great lengths to be an outstanding corporate citizen,” its “officers and directors must balance this stewardship with their fiduciary duty to shareholders,” he added.

City officials are taking a wait-and-see stance pending the results of the appraisal. Bonfield did, however, ask Blair to make sure appraisers understand the city “would also be interested in acquiring segments” of the line.

“The important thing is we’ve got them on the road to at least begin the discussion,” Bell said.

As for the Ellis Road crossing, Ahrendsen said he’s assuming the railroad’s actual interest is more about the possibility that an in-progress study of Durham’s road/rail crossings will recommend replacing the one at Ellis with an expensive bridge.

City officials would be reluctant to support outright closure, as the Ellis Road crossing is the only one on about a 2¼-mile stretch of the N.C. Railroad main line that passes through east Durham. 

Closing it means “you’ve isolated a community on either side of the tracks,” making it harder both for residents to get around and for the city to provide routine and emergency services to the affected neighborhoods, Ahrendsen said.

But preliminary indications are that a bridge carrying Ellis Road over the line would cost, as a ballpark figure, about $10 million to build. And that doesn’t count the likely costs of property acquisition and design work.

Norfolk Southern operates and maintains the line under a long-term track-rights agreement with the state-owned N.C. Railroad.

For the city, a bridge would be “a large capital project” that would need funding from a “variety of sources,” among them the federal and state subsidies that pay each year for road construction, Ahrendsen said.

The state Department of Transportation would have a say because the state owns both Ellis Road and Angier Avenue, he said.