Durham County

Durham’s downtown loop may become a relic of the past

Durham’s downtown loop is outlined in red. Traffic heads east beginning on Ramseur Street at bottom left and traverses the downtown area in a counter-clockwise direction.
Durham’s downtown loop is outlined in red. Traffic heads east beginning on Ramseur Street at bottom left and traverses the downtown area in a counter-clockwise direction. Bentley Systems Inc., City of Durham, Staff illustration

The City of Durham wants to convert the downtown loop to two-way traffic.

The city’s Transportation Department has applied for a $12 million U.S. Department of Transportation TIGER Grant to convert the loop, a move it says will improve safety and mobility as well as boost economic development downtown.

The money would change pavement markings for two-way traffic and bicycles, modify traffic signals and construct roundabouts at key intersections along Roxboro Street.

Changing the traffic flow of the loop has become a perennial policy discussion. Long before downtown’s economy began reviving, civic boosters often decried the one-way loop as an obstacle to downtown revitalization.

“One-way streets are great for traffic but are horrible for pedestrians and the walkability of a downtown. On one-way streets drivers tend to stay at a sustained speed. Drivers don’t have to stop or turn,” Downtown Durham Inc. Policy Director Matt Gladdek told The Herald-Sun earlier this year.

“Driving through, on a one-way, you might see a shop and say ‘That looks good, I’ll stop there on my way home.’ But, of course, you would not pass that way again on your way home,” he said.

Currently the only street-oriented businesses on the loop are the Mr. Tire Auto Service and the McDonald’s on Morgan Street, Gladdek said on Wednesday. He added that he believes a two-way loop would attract more street-oriented retail development along Morgan, Roxboro and Ramseur streets.

Two-way conversion of the loop would also increase safety for all roadway users – motorists, bicyclists, transit users and pedestrians, according to City of Durham Transportation Director Terry Bellamy.

“If we secure this U.S. DOT funding, we’ll be able to decrease speeds in the loop and create or improve facilities such as sidewalks, bicycle facilities, transit amenities and street lighting,” Bellamy said. “Funding for this project would also allow us to explore adding roundabouts to increase safety and traffic flow at key downtown intersections.”

Bellamy said the city applied for a TIGER grant to redo the downtown loop in 2012 – but that application wasn’t accepted.

This is the ninth round of TIGER grants that the U.S. DOT has offered since 2009, with $500 million earmarked for this round, though the future of the program under the Trump administration has been questioned.

He added that, although TIGER grants are very competitive, the city has a much better chance this time around. “Just ’cause we didn’t get it in 2012 doesn’t mean we stopped the dream,” he said.

“What’s changed from before is that Durham has invested over a billion dollars in downtown,” he said. “If you look at what we have done, we did not just ask for federal money. The city, the county and the business community has made investments to improve downtown not just for automobile users, but also for pedestrians and residents.”

Durham has had some previous success with TIGER grants. The city received a $222,700 TIGER grant in 2014 to help plan the Duke Belt Line project.

The $12 million grant would fall within an estimated cost range that a 2015 study placed on the project. The study estimated the cost of transforming the infrastructure at between $12 million and $15 million without factoring in streetscape details such as new street lights. Bellamy said that the total estimated cost could reach up to $18 million.

However, a more robust transformation of the streetscape, which would include more significant improvements, could cost an estimated $35 million – a figure the 2015 study recommended financing through the issuance of new municipal bonds.

The 2015 study also identified five intersections that could benefit from new development if the loop was redone, including the Roxboro and Liberty streets intersection, where the downtown library is being renovated, and most of the intersections along West Morgan Street.

The loop is made up of several street segments that form a one-way loop around the central business district. It was designed and built to funnel traffic through downtown. However, the loop does not support pedestrians, bicyclists or transit users who want to safely get around downtown or the businesses and retailers in the city’s central business district, a news release on Wednesday stated.

The loop also creates a barrier between downtown and adjoining low-income and minority neighborhoods.

The goal to convert downtown streets to two-way traffic began with the creation of the Downtown Durham Master Plan in 1999. In 2007, the city converted Main Street and Chapel Hill Street to two-way traffic, and Durham has since seen more than $1 billion invested in restaurants, shops and business along those streets, according to the city.

Cliff Bellamy: 919-419-6744, @CliffBellamy1