End of the line for light-rail yard opponents. ‘I hate it for you,’ says council member

The Durham-Orange light rail system, shown here in a rendering of a proposed downtown Durham station, would run 17.7 miles from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham.
The Durham-Orange light rail system, shown here in a rendering of a proposed downtown Durham station, would run 17.7 miles from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham. Submitted

After more than three hours of public comments, the Durham City Council voted unanimously Monday night to rezone a suburban area of southwest Durham for the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit project’s rail yard.

The light-rail operations and maintenance facility will be built on 25 acres off Farrington Road near Interstate 40, several neighborhoods and Creekside Elementary School.

The planned 17.7-mile light-rail line will connect UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill to Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham, with stops in between.

Council member Mark-Anthony Middleton called the vote “right for the city.”

He also questioned, however, whether GoTriangle was listening to southwest Durham residents as much as Duke University, the Durham Performing Arts Center and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Leaders at Duke, DPAC and Capitol Broadcasting Co., which owns the DBAP and American Tobacco Campus, have all spoken against parts of GoTriangle’s light-rail pan.

And the latest city move on Monday may mean some streets downtown will become one-way, two-way or closed entirely to cars.

The rail yard would be open all the time and house administration offices, rail car maintenance and storage space. The Farrington Road site was one of five considered, and was chosen by GoTriangle after public meetings in 2015 for having the least environmental impact.

But residents of the Culp Arbor neighborhood, Creekside parents and others spent weeks lobbying council members to deny the rezoning. The Durham Planning Commission split 4-4, and did not recommend the rezoning.

“This is the best location, even with its problems,” Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said before voting Monday night for the rezoning. “I think this project is really important for our community.”

Rail-yard opponents

Almost three times as many rail-yard opponents as supporters spoke at the public hearing — 52 people. They are worried about noise, and don’t think plans to mitigate the sound like tree and berm buffers, are enough. Many speakers said they supported light-rail transit, but not the rail-yard plan..

Dave Charters, GoTriangle manager of design and engineering, said the noise level related to “wheel squeal” will be below Federal Transit Administration guidelines and that GoTriangle is working on a policy to mitigate noise all along the 17.7-mile route. He said one of the reasons the Farrington Road site was chosen is because it is on a straight area of track.

B.R. Hoffman, a resident of Culp Arbor, which is across the street from the site, said she visited Charlotte with council members to see the Charlotte light-rail yard and building.

“We were hoping we’d like the ROMF [rail operations and maintenance facility], but instead we left Charlotte more concerned than when we went,” Hoffman said.

Jeff Prather, a retired Air Force engineer living in Culp Arbor, said GoTriangle’s environmental assessment isn’t clear about the noise level.

Another Culp Arbor neighbor, Linda Spallone, said noises will seem even louder at night.

Some speakers said GoTriangle is placing the rail yard near a school serving many low-income students and also taking land through eminent domain from African-American property owners.

Creekside Elementary School is a Title I school, meaning that at least 40 percent of the students are from low-income households.

Cheza Hinds, parent of two Creekside students, said fourth and fifth graders in trailers at the school won’t be as protected from the noise.

A Change.org petition against the ROMF had 1,181 signatures as of Monday afternoon.

Isaac Woods, who is descended from a formerly enslaved man, told the council that GoTriangle acquired land from his family through eminent domain.

John Tallmadge, interim director of the light-rail project, acknowledged that African-American landowners did lose their property through eminent domain for the rail yard.

“Did any white people get their property taken?” Middleton asked. Tallmadge said yes, they did, too.

Culp Arbor resident Ruth Ann McKinney said she wanted a neutral noise study about the impact on residents and the school.

Charters, of GoTriangle, said the noise “is going to dissipate significantly” before reaching Creekside Elementary.

“We would suggest the noise from the school buses there are as loud or louder than the noise from the maintenance facility,” he said.

Before voting in favor of the rezoning, Mayor Steve Schewel said he visited the rail yard in Charlotte several times and did not think light-rail noise would be significant for Creekside Elementary.

Rail yard supporters

Community groups and former elected officials spoke in favor of the rail yard. Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods), the People’s Alliance and the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit were all in favor.

Former City Council member Diane Catotti, who lives in southwest Durham, said the Farrington Road location was the most appropriate of the options. Former Mayor Wib Gulley said groups in favor of the rezoning like the Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit “have a voice not just for themselves but for hundreds and hundreds of folks across Durham.”

Council member DeDreana Freeman told rail-yard opponents who moved into southwest Durham in the past few years that they were outmatched by supporters from Durham CAN, the People’s Alliance and Coalition for Affordable Housing and Transit.

“These folks have been organizing for 20 years. You are kind of at the end of this conversation, and I hate it for you,” Freeman said.

If the light-rail project stays on schedule, light rail construction is set to start in 2020, with estimated completion in 2028.

Downtown streets could change with light rail

In other light-rail developments, the city is looking at closing and reconfiguring some downtown streets for light rail.

City Attorney Patrick Baker sent council members a memo Monday that adjusted language in the city’s agreement with GoTriangle to reflect that the downtown light rail plan is not final. The city will advise GoTriangle about the plan, which will need final approval by the GoTriangle Board of Trustees.

Also Monday, DPAC General Manager Bob Klaus wrote a letter to the mayor and city manager opposing GoTriangle’s plan to close Blackwell Street to cars.

Baker wrote that the city agreement with GoTriangle could authorize these road reconfigurations if needed for light-rail construction:

One-way West Pettigrew Street eastbound from East Chapel Hill Street to South Dillard Street;

Two-way Ramseur Street from South Dillard Street to East Chapel Hill Street;

Raising West Pettigrew Street’s profile as required to provide safe rail crossings;

Closing Blackwell Street at the North Carolina Railroad rail crossing;

One-way South Dillard Street southbound at the North Carolina Railroad rail crossing;

Alter intersections including Gregson Street, Duke Street, Blackwell Street, South Mangum Street, Vivian Street, South Dillard Street, and Grant Street, as required to allow for safe rail crossings.

Johnson told a resident in an email Monday that the council had not received a formal request to close Blackwell Street, and called it a subject of “ongoing negotiation.”

The council approved the cooperation agreement with GoTriangle late Monday night, including Baker’s change and another that added a committee. Freeman asked GoTriangle about including women and minority contractors involved in GoTriangle construction. Tallmadge said the language needed for state guidelines would be to call it “Disadvantaged Business Enterprises.” Council members agreed and unanimously passed the agreement.

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