Sealed rail corridors to close streets, build bridges

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UPDATE: City councilors heard from a packed house at Tuesday night’s hearing. Most of the people who showed up to give their comments said they opposed the NC3 idea, which runs to the west of Capital Boulevard along the Five Points and Glenwood Brooklyn neighborhoods. Council will make their decision at next week’s meeting.
View Planned sealed corridors in a larger map

City Council members will decide Tuesday where they stand on an early plan to update local rail lines and crossings in advance of high-speed train service from Raleigh to Richmond.

Part of the Federal Railroad Administration’s second-tier draft environmental statement, the plan presents several options for “sealing” the rail corridor in Raleigh, limiting motorist access to the tracks. It would mean separating road from rail – either by closing off streets or building bridges.

“What the NCDOT is pursuing is a fully sealed corridor, and that’s the elimination of all at-grade crossings,” said Eric Lamb, manager of Raleigh’s transportation services division.

The NCDOT originally created the concept of sealed corridors, a mix of techniques to keep motorists off the tracks, to prevent accidents with trains. Additions ranged from median separators to longer gate arms, all meant to “seal” the corridor from violators. After the project began in the 90s, the FRA adopted four-quadrant gates that block all lanes of traffic as the bare minimum requirement for sealed corridors.

But according to Pat Simmons, director of NCDOT’s rail division, that technique is not enough to prevent accidents – especially given plans for the corridor’s increased rail speed.

“We know that the sealed corridors don’t prevent motorists from getting onto the tracks, so that colors our approach,” Simmons said. “The only way to do that is not to allow cars and trucks and people in the same physical space as trains.”

The Plan

The plan the City Council will consider at a special meeting Tuesday night has two big options, both focusing on the corridor from Wake Forest to the junction near Boylan Avenue in Raleigh.

From Wake Forest to Whitaker Mill Road, all three plans are the same and call for the construction of overpasses on Durant Road, Gresham Lake Road, Millbrook Road, New Hope Church Road and Whitaker Mill. They also call for the closure of Wolfpack Lane where it crosses the railway near Atlantic Avenue.

South of Whitaker Mill, the options diverge into two main alternatives: NC1/NC2 and NC3.

The first option would close West Street and Harrington Street at the rail crossings, while a new pedestrian underpass would allow foot traffic through Harrington. A Jones Street overpass would carry traffic over the rail crossing, Glenwood Avenue and West Street, forcing another closure of Harrington.

The other option, NC3, would close the crossing at Jones Street, splitting the road in two. Lamb said although the street is traveled heavily by pedestrians, there’s enough redundancy in downtown Raleigh’s street grid to avoid problems.

“We certainly don’t think it will be an impact to car traffic,” he said. “They’re only forced to go one block away.”

Despite that redundancy, city planners have recommended the construction of a pedestrian overpass over Jones, another connecting the nearby parking deck to Glenwood Avenue and streetscape improvements along West and North streets.

NC3 would also close the rail crossing at Fairview Road, which Lamb said has a relatively low traffic volume. In fact, he said Norfolk Southern blocks the crossing to build its train sets so often the fire department doesn’t use the road anymore.

Both options also call for a Hargett Street bridge starting at Boylan Avenue, spanning the rail lines and West Street and forcing the closure of Harrington before reconnecting with Dawson Street. This could create issues for a possible multimodal transit station in the area.

“It’s problematic for the city relative to the city plans for Union station, planned for West and Hargett,” Lamb said. “There are some inconsistencies, and that’s what we’re trying to work through now.”

Both city planners and the Passenger Rail Task Force, an 11-member advisory committee appointed by the City Council, endorsed NC3. In its letter to the council in early August, the committee acknowledged NC3 would be the more expensive option of the two, at about $90 million.

Unfunded

Construction on the Raleigh to Richmond line, which is not yet funded, isn’t slated to begin until 2014, with service expected by 2018.

Lamb said the project does have potential to attract money from outside the state, since sealed corridors allow trains to move at higher speeds and greater efficiency.

“DOT is attempting to position itself aggressively for federal rail funding,” he said.

Even so, Simmons acknowledges there’s no guarantee.

“We took a risk, because the Federal Railroad Administration has not provided funding for bridges,” he said.

Lamb said separating road from rail may pay off if future plans for southern rail corridors call for more robust commuter rail networks, like the all-electric Acela line in the northeast.

“If there’s a consideration to electrify, it would have to be separated,” Lamb said. “DOT is being somewhat proactive.”

And given North Carolina’s rapid growth, Simmons said careful planning is necessary – even if it’s difficult.

“If we’re good at it, if we’re successful, it will provide not just for today, but for future generation and future economic growth,” Simmons said.

After the city council meets Tuesday at 7 p.m., residents can still provide feedback on the plans online. The NCDOT recently extended the deadline for public comment to Sept. 10.

“This is something that needs the critical examination of the public, elected leaders and our designers,” Simmons said. “We all own the outcome.”

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