This morning, the city of Durham announced that it had applied for a $12 million U.S. Department of Transportation TIGER Grant
to convert the hated downtown loop into a two-way street. If the city wins the grant—part of a $500 million discretionary pool of money that the feds use for infrastructure projects—it would use it to change pavement markings, modify traffic signals, and construct roundabouts.
“For decades the downtown loop, and the system of other one-way downtown streets, has been widely viewed as confusing, unsafe and a detriment to revitalization,” the city said in a press release. “The loop, which is comprised of several street segments that form a one-way loop around the City’s central business district, was designed and built to funnel traffic through downtown. However, this decades-old design 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. The loop also creates a barrier between downtown and adjoining low-income and minority neighborhoods.”
This isn’t a new idea. As far back as 1999, the city’s Downtown Durham Master Plan, the city realized that having one-way streets that escorted people out of the downtown corridor was a terrible piece of urban planning. In 2007, the city converted Main and Chapel Hill streets to two-way traffic; in the years since, downtown has seen something of a renaissance. In 2008–09, a city study concluded that the transformation was viable
. In 2010, the city completed a feasibility study that identified a preferred alternative route. In 2012, the city applied for a TIGER grant but didn’t receive it, says transportation director Terry Bellamy.
So the loop remains.
“The loop is a great way to get around downtown,” says Matt Gladdek, director of government affairs at Downtown Durham Inc. “But it’s not a good way to get to downtown.”
Since its founding in 1993, Gladdek adds, DDI has been trying to get rid of the “big gutter around downtown. It hurts the ability for people to walk. It hurts the vitality of streets. It hurts a significant amount of very important downtown real estate.”
Two years ago, the private development company Cleveland & Church Partners unveiled a proposal
to make the loop two-way, arguing that “the Loop is a barrier to pedestrians. It is confusing to drivers. It reduces the development feasibility of land throughout Downtown. … Removing the Loop will create new downtown development sites and make existing undeveloped sites more desirable. This development will meet existing market demand. Restoring our two-way street grid will make Downtown a better place to live, work, walk, shop, play, and be a citizen.”
This report estimated that the cost—including drainage, utilities, and new street furniture—could be as high as $35 million. (The $12 million figure doesn’t factor in work on utilities, sidewalks, lighting, and landscaping.)
One potential kink: according to the Department of Transportation’s website, this year’s TIGER program “will give special consideration to projects which emphasize improved access to reliable, safe, and affordable transportation for communities in rural areas.”
As competitive as the TIGER grants are, Bellamy still thinks his project has a good chance. The projects that win, he says, tend to high big economic impacts. Given all the growth that downtown Durham has since its last application in 2017—not just business but also residential development downtown—making the loop two-way would further the goal of creating complete streets and connecting downtown to the city’s neighborhoods and even the rural areas outside of town.
That, he hopes, will make this project a contender.
When Bellamy first reached out to DDI to line up support for making the loop two-way, Gladdek says, DDI got thirty letters of support from downtown businesses within three business days, from retailers to service businesses.
“That type of support,” he says, “has been important for TIGER.”