Working on our railroad barrier

Sep. 30, 2013 @ 05:58 PM

The story of how Durham came to where it is – and to be called Durham – is a familiar one.

In 1850, Bartlett Durham, a physician, gave the fledgling North Carolina Railroad a four-acre easement for track right-of-way and a train depot.

As the website of the Museum of Durham History summarizes it:

“The post office was relocated from Prattsburg to the depot site, at the eventual corner of Pettigrew and Corcoran-Blackwell streets, which was officially named ‘Durham's Station’ on April 26, 1853. The rail line to Durham's Station was completed in the spring of 1855. A village took form around the train station and post office…”

Durham, like so many towns and cities birthed and nurtured by the railroad in the late 19th century and early decades of the 20th, continued to grow around the station and along those tracks.

Now, a century and a half after Durham Station first opened, we struggle still with the aftermath of that settlement pattern.  The tracks – busy still these days with freight and passenger trains – awkwardly bisect our city. They hamper vehicle and pedestrian traffic and create a barrier – visual, psychological and physical – between, for example, the booming American Tobacco/Durham Bulls/Diamond View campus and the heart of a resurgent downtown.

The series of spots where roads and streets cross the tracks at grade-level are a perpetual safety hazard. When trains and cars collide, it does not end well.

Now, the initial draft of a state-funded study on those railroad crossings points to two conclusions:

-- We can fix this.

-- It will cost a lot of money.

The study will be subject of a public hearing at the Oct. 21 City Council meeting, and officials will continue for some time to gather comments before embarking on a final draft.

But the preliminary draft suggests closing four lightly traveled crossing and, eventually, to take the tracks over Blackwell and Mangum streets downtown.

The four crossings that might be closed each carry fewer than 2,500 vehicles a day across tracks, suggesting that relatively few drivers would be inconvenienced.

But “relative” may be a key word here – for those drivers, and for residents and businesses near those crossings, the convenience they provide is coveted and unlikely to be forsaken without a good bit of protest.

Other crossings where grade separation might be appropriate in a perfect world are already off the table given the prospect of staggering cost, significant disruption of surrounding areas and heavy neighborhood opposition.

Even the high-priority separations downtown are unlikely to happen anytime soon, if the plan is ultimately approved with those projects in it. If they were built in anything approaching a decade, it would be astoundingly fast.

But the study can lay an important foundation for long-term planning that aims toward, eventually, resolving at least the worst of our challenges with the crossings. And even if it takes a couple decades to resolve, it’s worth keeping in perspective that it took 160 years to reach this point.