A difficult trails choice

Mar. 20, 2014 @ 07:02 PM

Durham’s City Council is weighing a decision on allocating money for two potential trails, and both options it faces pose challenges.

Does it want to hold on to $2 million long allocated for a project that may never come to pass – or should it shift the money to another venture that has its own share of hurdles?

At issue is what to do with $2 million earmarked almost nine years ago through the efforts of U. S. Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill, who represents a substantial portion of Durham. The city sought the money in hopes of using it to help purchase an unused railroad line around downtown, the Durham Beltline.

But the money has languished, along with the city’s efforts to acquire the railroad bed, since Congress earmarked it in 2005. The city and the railroad’s owner, the Norfolk Southern Corp., have been far apart on the value of the line – and local officials and trail advocates suspect the railroad’s view of that value soared with the city’s interest in it.

So the Durham Open Space and Trails Commission has asked the City Council to shift that $2 million toward an arguably more doable project – the proposed Panther Creek Trail which would run nearly five miles along another abandoned railroad right-of-way in eastern Durham.

We understand the commission’s fear the city could face a “use it or lose it” move from the feds.  Eying the deficit-cutting tide in Washington, commissioners worry Congress may take back that money.

But we think the council should proceed cautiously on any reallocation of that money.

First of all, as City Manager Tom Bonfield said when the council discussed the idea, “there’s no hard evidence to say” the takeback would happen.

While commission chairwoman LaDawnna Summers said the Panther Creek trail would benefit “an underserved yet growing part of our community,” unlike the Beltline it is not one of the top priorities in the city’s long-range trail plan.

Moreover, part of the trail would be in the county, and the county has been inclined to direct its parkland acquisition toward open space, not trails. And while the ownership of the Beltline by a single entity with an understandable quest for profit is a barrier, the fact the Panther Creek route is no longer owned by a railroad presents its own challenges. Acquiring the land would involve negotiating with multiple private owners.

The Beltline trail is perhaps even more important now, with the resurgence of downtown, than when the city adopted its master plan for pedestrian trails more than a decade ago. It holds historic significance, having been spawned in the 19th century by Washington Duke’s insistence on a rail line to his tobacco factories.

Panther Creek, as Councilman Steve Schewel said, “is a good option, it’s just not the best option. The best option is to build the Beltline.”

The best option may indeed be out of reach.  But we think the council should proceed carefully before redirecting money that might be critical to acquiring the Beltline.