Whoever said that the devil is in the details must've been trying to figure out how to thread the Southeast High Speed Rail (SEHSR) project through the center of Raleigh.
The three alternative routes offered by the state Department of Transportation's Rail Division in June all raise serious, and perhaps fatal, problems for city planners and residents. New "hybrid" routes sketched by residents and a city councilor, however, may offer salvation not just for the rail project but for the much-maligned Capital Boulevard corridor as well.
The concept of a hybrid route won the City Council's tentative blessing Tuesday, when it voted 8-0 to request that DOT consider whether any of the hybrid plans are viable and if so, the costs of such a plan and the impacts on adjacent neighborhoods.
The SEHSR project would ultimately connect Atlanta to Washington, D.C., via Charlotte, Raleigh and Richmond.
Rail Division Director Pat Simmons pledged, following a council hearing on the project last week, that his staff would "faithfully" work with the city to determine whether a hybrid route is possible. "Our obligation," Simmons said, "is to see if we can in fact improve upon the designs and the alternatives."
The hearing, before a standing-room-only crowd of some 300 at City Hall, was a partial breakthrough for Five Points residents who've organized to block the route that the city seemed on the verge of supporting—DOT's so-called NC3 alignment.
Still, the council stopped short of opposing NC3 outright, voting 7-1 to pair its request for consideration of a hybrid with a resolution sending DOT the recommendations of the council's passenger rail task force, which endorsed NC3.
Councilor John Odom, whose district includes Five Points, was the lone vote against including the task force recommendations in the city's official response to DOT.
Mayor Charles Meeker insisted repeatedly Tuesday that DOT and the federal government, which would pay for most of the $2 billion-plus project, will have the final say about alignments through Raleigh, not the city. "Hopefully, we will get this rail line done as best we can," Meeker said.
The idea behind the hybrids is to link the northern portion of DOT's NC1 and NC2 routes with the southern portion of the NC3 route by building a long railroad bridge across Capital Boulevard north of Peace Street.
Councilor Thomas Crowder suggested that the viaduct might track beside or above the median of Capital Boulevard and be built in connection with a major overhaul of the roads and the creation of a new Pigeon House Branch greenway system north of downtown. "We could remake the whole Capital Boulevard valley," Crowder said in an interview before the council session. "In other words, I'm thinking big. And after listening to all of the options, I think that's the right solution for the neighborhoods, for downtown and for the city."
Crowder's scheme might push the northern terminus of the viaduct as far as Wake Forest Road. Other hybrid plans proposed by a group of downtown residents and, separately, by Five Points attorney Ben Kuhn, would shorten the viaduct.
The longer the viaduct, the better it is in terms of its grade, elevation and its "straightaway," which is needed to bring a high-speed train into the city without forcing it—because of curving tracks—to slow prematurely. However, it would be more expensive to build.
A request that the DOT consider Crowder's ideas for a hybrid route also won the council's unanimous support.
In DOT's plans from June, the NC1 and NC2 options are nearly identical; each would travel through the middle of Raleigh on a corridor owned by the CSX railroad corporation. NC3 would use a corridor owned by Norfolk Southern railroad.
Between Glenwood South and the Boylan Avenue Bridge, the two corridors are parallel. But north of Glenwood South, the CSX corridor splits off and runs up the east side of Capital Boulevard (the old Seaboard Station is on the CSX tracks). The Norfolk Southern corridor continues north on the west side of Capital Boulevard along the edge of the Five Points neighborhoods.
Since getting wind of the NC3 option a few weeks ago, Five Points residents have banded together to stop it. A coalition called Don't Railroad Historic Five Points is using an 88-0 vote of the Five Points Citizens Advisory Council to make the case that, as business owner K.D. Kennedy said, "NC3 would not just harm Five Points, it would destroy it."
Ironically, DOT put the NC3 option together after hearing from city officials two years ago that NC1 or NC2 would wreak an unacceptable level of havoc on burgeoning Glenwood South and on downtown revitalization. When DOT previewed the NC1/ NC2 routes for city staffers in a private meeting in 2008, according to a city official who was there, "It was like they were saying, 'We've got some bombs we want to detonate in your downtown. Where should we put them?'"
The problem with NC1 and NC2 was mainly with street closings in Glenwood South. DOT has insisted that West and Harrington streets would need to be walled off where they cross the CSX tracks. West Jones Street would also be closed, but it would be replaced by a vehicular bridge between Boylan Avenue and Salisbury Street—in other words, a bridge over Glenwood Avenue and West and Harrington streets. NC3's impact on Glenwood South would be less severe: Only West Jones Street would be closed. But dozens of homes in Five Points would be "impacted" by noise and vibrations, and about 50 businesses, including Kennedy's electric supply company, would be forced to relocate.
The hybrid plans would avoid Five Points entirely by using the CSX tracks north of Peace Street. By switching to the Norfolk Southern corridor south of Peace Street, the hybrids would also eliminate the need for street closings other than West Jones Street.
A decade ago, when DOT decided that the rail corridor should go through the middle of Raleigh rather than follow the current Amtrak route, DOT did not specify that it intended to close every at-grade street, nor did it specify how it intended to get through Raleigh. Consequently, no alarm bells seem to have gone off for Raleigh officials. Of the 784 comments officially filed in 2001–02 when the general route was chosen, just 15 came from Raleigh residents, none questioning the basic route choice. No official city comments were noted, according to documents made available by DOT.