New hope for beltline

May. 17, 2014 @ 04:22 PM

For well more than a decade, the idea of transforming an abandoned rail line along the western and northern edges of downtown into a pedestrian and bike trail has ebbed and flowed – with far more ebb, to be sure, than flow.

Now a new player in the process has increased the prospects that the trail may become a reality.

At issue is the Duke Beltline, a rail line built in the 1890s by Brodie Duke to link segments of the American Tobacco Company and to provide a connection to the north-south trunk lines running through Durham. The line’s importance was critical as the tobacco factories – and the city – grew rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Tobacco long since ceased to be the business in all those factories and warehouses ringing downtown, though, and no rail cars have rolled over the beltline in years. 

The line’s conversion to a trail, much like the American Tobacco Trail emerged from abandoned rail tracks, is part of the city’s master plan. The city and the track’s owner, the Norfolk Southern Corp., have been at serious loggerheads over the price, however, and the trail idea seemed to be out of fiscal reach. Many have feared the railroad might ultimately decide to sell off the line piecemeal, dooming the trail idea.

But The Conservation Fund has recently approached city officials with the idea that the fund could help acquire the land. The non-profit fund has “very deep pockets,” as City Manager Tom Bonfield put it.  It has about $468 million in net assets and raised $179.3 million last year.

The fund’s officials “are in the exploration stages, but they are definitely interested,” City Councilman Steve Schewel told The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg last week.  The fund’s expertise, Bonfield noted, will help evaluate the line’s worth. That in turn could help open serious negotiations with Norfolk Southern over what its bottom-line price tag is for the line. In the past, some people involved in the discussions have suggested the line – and its high asking price – might be a bargaining chip as Norfolk Southern seeks other concessions from the city.

If the fund, the city and the railroad can pin down a feasible price, the fund would likely buy the land with the idea it would over time sell it to the city. That would buy valuable time for the city to raise the money -- perhaps with private participation from businesses in the downtown with an interest in the trail as an amenity.

The Duke Beltline, which helped drive the city’s prosperity in an earlier manufacturing era, could resurface as a popular trail for walkers, runners and bikers, another attraction to draw the entrepreneurs, creative-classers and the like driving downtown’s latest boom.

That seems so much better than an overgrown set of obsolete rail tracks.