D6 it is: Raleigh Council chooses a downtown light-rail route

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Light-transit, Charlotte-style
  • Courtesy Patriarca12 at en.wikipedia
  • Light-transit, Charlotte-style
If the Raleigh City Council is the last word on the subject — and at this point, it looks like it will be — a trunk light-rail line for the Triangle, if built, would come through downtown Raleigh on the route known as D6. (See the map below.) That's the West Morgan Street-to-Harrington Street alternative.

The Council, on a 6-2 vote Monday night, followed the Triangle Transit Authority's recommendation for the downtown alignment. Previously, the TTA had pledged to accept the Council's determination, whatever it was. Thus, the two go hand-in-hand to the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), a body comprised of local officials from the eastern portion of the Triangle, including Raleigh.

CAMPO has the official last call, but with TTA and Raleigh in agreement, its vote becomes little more than a formality.

So what does last night's action mean? It means that the light-rail system, if it's built and if it includes a Wake County leg, will use the D6 alignment through downtown Raleigh, not one of the other downtown routes under consideration.

I was asked this morning: Does this mean the Council decided to build the D6 line?

No.

Raleigh is not proposing to build anything. And the TTA, which is, has miles to go before its plans become reality.

What's happening is that the TTA is putting together a "locally preferred alternative" for light-rail service in Orange, Durham and Wake Counties. A "locally preferred alternative" is what the federal government wants to see when it receives an application for funds under its "New Starts" transit program. Of course, "New Starts" money is in short supply and there are many aspirants for it, so having a preferred alternative is a necessary element, but it guarantees nothing except the chance to get in line and start doing your environmental impact studies.

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That said, Orange County and Durham County have known for some years where they wanted their portions of a regional light-rail system to go. The only tricky, still unresolved portions were in Wake County, specifically: (1) what route to take through downtown Raleigh, and (2) what route to take in the area of Triangle Town Center near I-540.

And only the downtown Raleigh question was really tricky. (At Triangle Town Center, the decision's all but made to run the rail line into the mall, which means it will need to cross over Capital Boulevard; the alternative is to stay on the west side of Capital Boulevard, where a rail corridor — but no mall — already exists.)

The map below shows some of the downtown routes that were studied (others, eliminated earlier, were omitted):

lightrailD6andothersjpg.jpg

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From the map, you can see that only the D5 route would've come into the actual downtown proper. The D2, D3 and D6 routes, on the other hand, skirt the downtown to the west, running up through the Glenwood South district.

D5 has all sorts of other problems with it, however, which caused the city's Passenger Rail Advisory Task Force, a Council-appointed group, to gin up its own last-minute, not-really-studied alternative, which it dubbed D6a. (For background, see our earlier post.)

The D6a idea was to use — like D6 — West Morgan Street, but instead of veering north on Harrington, keep on going right into the downtown. There, it would've linked up with the D5 loop around the Capitol district on Salisbury and Wilmington Streets..

The advantage of D6a: Goes to the downtown, baby.

The disadvantage: To get there, D6a would've needed to cross the ultra-busy S. Dawson and S. McDowell one-way thoroughfares (40-50,000 cars a day) at-grade. Both are state roads, and the state DOT was against having the light-rail cross them at-grade and very opposed to the idea that, if it did cross them, the trains should have priority over the cars.

The upshot, according to TTA and Raleigh's transit planning chief, Eric Lamb, was that even if DOT approved the at-grade crossings (unlikely), the trains would be forced to stop at Dawson and McDowell — red light — every time the lights turned green for the cars. Another disadvantage of D6a, Lamb said, was having light-rail trains stuck in traffic or, worse, hit by a car, on Salisbury and Wilmington.

The fact that D6 goes through the Glenwood South district has major advantages for Raleigh in terms of the development opportunities there. That it does not enter the downtown proper, though, is a big disadvantage for the light-rail system as a whole.

Councilors Russ Stephenson and Bonner Gaylord considered the latter a serious enough problem that they voted no, feeling D6a should be studied more closely before a final decision was made.. Gaylord said he liked D5 as an option also.

Councilor Thomas Crowder, on the other hand, argued that the this first light-rail line, including D6, can and must be augmented by downtown circulator buses, streetcars and additional light-rail lines in the future. In other words, it's not the end of the system, but rather the spine of a system that must evolve.

So, Crowder said, when you get off the light-rail line at the station stop on West Morgan Street, say, and you're six blocks from Fayetteville Street, you could hop on an R-Line bus or maybe a new streetcar. Yes, they'd have to stop for traffic at Dawson and McDowell. But when they stop, they won't be backing up an entire regional light-rail system.

Under D6, by the way, the West Morgan Street station is penciled in on the south side of the street between Boylan Avenue and Glenwood Avenue — very convenient to the Glenwood South district and to the Warehouse district, but a good six-block walk from Fayetteville Street.

There was talk of putting the station on West Morgan a couple of blocks further east at Harrington Street, which is where D6 would swing to the north. But it can't be done. The reason: The West Morgan bridge (over the freight rail corridor) is too high, and there isn't enough room between the top of the bridge and the intersection at Harrington to bring the rail cars down without creating a too-steep, and therefore dangerous drop.

With the West Morgan Station not that close to downtown, though, and another proposed station at Harrington and North Streets close to the state government complex but, again, not real near to what most people would call downtown Raleigh, that's all the more reason why a supporting network of R-Line buses, streetcars or equivalent will be needed to make the D6 alternative work well for the system as a whole.

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