The promise of high-speed rail service in Raleigh: trains to Washington in four hours, not six—and that's if you're lucky. Trains to Charlotte in two hours, not three-plus.
Ever since the Southeast High Speed Rail (SEHSR) project went officially on the drawing boards in 1992, Raleigh has looked forward to becoming a regional rail hub between Atlanta, Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C.
The downside: Punching high-speed rail through the center of Raleigh is like trying to put a new highway in without splitting the surrounding neighborhoods.
Success is only possible, some in Raleigh are starting to say, if the state Department of Transportation drops its insistence that streets at every at-grade crossing be closed—dead-ended, in effect—and considers alternative measures called "sealed corridors" that would let some streets stay open.
The affected neighborhoods would include Glenwood South, the city's most successful downtown entertainment district. As David Diaz, president of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, said at Monday night's public hearing, the city is working hard to connect the five downtown districts into a coherent whole. "Anything that's done to isolate [Glenwood South], we would see as a negative," Diaz said.
If Diaz was mild, however (he said the alliance has yet to take a formal position on the project), others were blunt. High-speed rail would be fine, they argued, as long as it can be built without closing important east-west connector streets like West Jones Street in Glenwood South. "Jones Street is a key pedestrian connection point," said Jim Belt, representing a group of residents called the Downtown Living Advocates. "It should be kept open."
The hearing Monday, conducted by N.C. DOT, was part of the so-called Tier II Environmental Impact Statement process, a required step to securing federal funding. Eight years ago, the Tier I EIS process resulted in the DOT's decision, blessed by Washington, to choose a route through Raleigh for high-speed rail. In doing so, N.C. DOT rejected an alternative route that would've skirted Raleigh and avoided the street issues.
(The alternate route is still used by Amtrak and runs from Virginia through Rocky Mount to Selma before heading to the Raleigh station from the southeast. According to N.C. DOT, the route was considered slower because it's out of the way from Charlotte to Washington, D.C., and there would be fewer riders.)
During this recent process, N.C. DOT is evaluating two rail corridors—the CSX and Norfolk-Southern—that approach Raleigh from the north on both sides of Capital Boulevard before converging in Glenwood South near the West Jones Street intersection. The two corridors would continue from there to the Boylan "Y" beneath the Boylan Avenue Bridge, where they split again.
Regardless of which corridor is chosen, N.C. DOT plans to close downtown streets. The specific streets would differ, though, depending on the route.
If the CSX railroad corridor is chosen, three streets would close and a new bridge would be built. (see box, this page). If the Norfolk-Southern is picked, only West Jones street would close and a pedestrian bridge could be constructed. Federal railroad rules require that pedestrian bridges be built 25 feet above any passing rail car or about 35 feet above the tracks. The bridge could be accessible by elevator.
"We're trying to keep from killing people," said Allan Paul, operations and facilities branch director for the N.C. DOT's Rail Division, during a tour of the corridor routes last week.
Closing a street would entail building a long fence or wall on both sides of the railroad tracks and hiding it with landscaping. The point is to keep cars from getting hit, but also pedestrians, Paul said, especially if they've been drinking. "We've got people actually going under our [freight] trains at night down here," he said as the tour reached Glenwood South.
Leaving the streets open "would be a disaster waiting to happen," he added.
The DLA supports the Norfolk-Southern corridor, Belt said, but they want West Jones Street to remain open to vehicular and pedestrian traffic. They've proposed building a rail tunnel for high-speed trains as well as the freight trains that already run in the Glenwood corridor. "Yes, it's an expensive option, but this is a long-term proposition," Belt said.
Meanwhile, the city's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission is questioning why the cross streets need to close even if the high-speed trains are running at-grade (that is, not in a tunnel or on an overhead bridge). In a letter to city officials, Steve Waters, the commission's chair, says the trains will slow as they approach the Raleigh station or gradually accelerate as they leave, so "high-speed" is really a misnomer.
"Nor will the high-speed trains add significant traffic volume to that which already exists" from the freight lines—"and has existed for decades," Waters said. "The connectivity of this area deserves to be preserved because it is a very urban and increasingly vibrant, mixed-use downtown environment where trains will be traveling at slow speeds."
His letter went to a Passenger Rail Task Force appointed by the City Council to weight high-speed rail options. The task force is trying to fashion a position before the public comment period ends for the Tier II EIS, which is Aug. 30.
Task force members, speaking on background, said it's likely they'll favor the Norfolk-Southern route, but it's unclear what positions they'll take.
Two Raleigh City Council members who spoke at the public hearing each urged N.C. DOT to consider "sealed-corridor" options for West Jones Street (or West and Harrington, if the CSX line is picked) instead of closing it. A "sealed corridor" would be impenetrable by cars or pedestrians when the trains are passing, but otherwise open to traffic.
Councilors Thomas Crowder and Russ Stephenson pointed to a Federal Railroad Administration document governing safety at high-speed railroad crossings. It calls for street closings or if streets remain open, a combination of four-quadrant gates, one-way streets with gate arms across all travel lanes or medians and barrier gates.
Crowder noted that the Tier II analysis thus far ends at the Boylan "Y" but the high-speed rail line would continue west to the State Fairgrounds, Cary and Durham. As many as five more Raleigh streets may have to be closed in West Raleigh for the project, he said, unless N.C. DOT is open to sealed-corridor options in the city.
"High-speed rail is a very exciting opportunity for Raleigh," Crowder said. But he urged state transportation planners to "keep street closures to an absolute minimum."
The cost of the 162-mile Raleigh-to-Richmond line is estimated at $2.1 billion to $2.3 billion. There is no funding available, but transportation officials expect that to change within the next three to five years. The line will take an additional three to five years to build.
Ed Lewis, the N.C. DOT public hearing officer, said that when the department selects a corridor, it will move to the next phase of planning, which will take it "down to the details ... at the street level.
"We are coming back," Lewis said. "We're by no means done" with public participation.