Tunnel could be solution to move Durham-Orange light rail project forward

December 15, 2018
An artist's rendering depicts the proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail line running through downtown Durham near the Durham Performing Arts Center.

Another hurdle has been cleared for the Durham-Orange light rail system as a controversial proposal to close a busy intersection is now off the table.

The busy intersection of Blackwell and Pettigrew streets accommodates a lot of vehicle and foot traffic. The new proposal would keep it open and route the light rail to a tunnel underground.

The plan makes sense to resident Drew Gibson.

“I think it’s a heavy traffic intersection. Tunneling would keep it open as well as keep it underground just for appearance sake and ease of traffic,” he said.

A tunnel seems to be the solution that will continue to move the light rail project forward.

The previous proposal to close the intersection at Blackwell and Pettigrew streets led two members of the GoTransit Board of Directors to resign from their posts last month.

Among them was Michael Godmon, vice president of real estate for Capitol Broadcasting, which is the parent company of WRAL News and the owner of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and American Tobacco Campus.

“The light rail project comes with many complex issues to carefully consider, and we appreciate urgent and earnest efforts by city, county and transit leaders to work through these, in collaboration with concerned stakeholders,” Goodmon said in a statement.

Durham County Commission Chairwoman Wendy Jacobs said the project will transform the region.

“The county and the city, we invest in infrastructure,” she said. “It would be a $2.5 billion project. It will be the biggest infrastructure project in the history of North Carolina,” she said.

Some residents said they don’t mind the eventual construction headaches the project would bring.

“I think part of living downtown is you just get used to construction and new buildings. It’s part of the charm and the ambiance, I guess,” resident Erin Grohs said.

The funding for the tunnel will have to be added to the project’s budget, but there are no estimates yet about how much it would cost.

“We gathered fifty downtown stakeholders together on Thursday, and there was strong support in the group for the tunnel taking the light rail under Blackwell and Mangum Streets. We’ll be incurring significant costs with this solution, but it will allow us to get the light rail built, and that’s crucial for our region over the next 100 years,” Durham Mayor Steve Schewel said in a statement.

The light rail line would stretch 18 miles from UNC Hospitals in the west to the campus of North Carolina Central University in the east, with 12 proposed stops along the way. But for the line to become reality, Duke University must donate land where the line would cross its campus.

The light rail is on a tight schedule and the goal is to identify all local and federal funds by next fall and break ground sometime in 2020.

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