Train tracks

Imagine waking up one day to a train coming through your yard. That’s the specter that haunts property owners along the edge of Morgan Creek.

The light rail system has been in the works for years, long enough that some of us won’t believe it until we see it. But the various options for its path took some residents by surprise when council members went over the alternate routes Monday night. Laurin Easthom and Sally Greene want to know why, and they put long-range transportation manager David Bonk on the hot seat.

In the latest iteration of the route and stations for the light rail commuter train that would connect UNC Hospitals to Durham and eventually Raleigh, the route changed from along Manning Drive en route to East 54 and Meadowmont. The grade of the hill on Manning to Fordham Boulevard is too steep for light rail, and the buried utility lines would be expensive to work around. So the new route parallels Mason Farm Road to Fordham Boulevard, after which it will continue along Fordham to Raleigh Road and out N.C. 54. But instead of running along the west side of Fordham, where there are no houses, the proposal takes the route across Fordham to cut through the yards of houses in the Morgan Creek neighborhood.

Other changes slid the Hamilton Road station closer to Glenwood Elementary and away from the condos of East 54. The light rail runs along the back edge of East 54 next to Finley Golf Course. When Laurin Easthom questioned the advisability of moving the station so close to the elementary school, Bonk implied that Glenwood might cede to progress. “Don’t count on it being there in perpetuity,” he said. Don’t count on it going away, Easthom countered. “Land for schools is rare in Chapel Hill. I don’t see Glenwood going away,” she said.

Greene noted that the Manning Drive hill had been there all along, as had the underground utilities. Why hadn’t that been factored in from the start, she asked. Bonk replied that in the early planning phase “we made seat-of-our-pants decisions. Now we’re re-evaluating.”

One irate property owner wanted to know, “How do citizens get informed that a railroad is going through their property?” The new route could potentially reduce their property values by hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said. At that it was Bonk’s turn to be irate. Triangle Transit had held 19 workshops to give residents a chance to review plans and give input. It’s up to residents to stay informed.

The matter returns to council June 13.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Linda Convissor

     /  May 18, 2011

    I’m fairly certain it was Laurin Easthom who raised and pursued the issue of Glenwood School.

    I went to the meeting so that I could read the graphics better than I could on the computer. They were still very hard to read – trying to convey a lot of info in one slide without accompanying narrative makes it hard to follow. It would be easy to have come away from that meeting confused or misunderstanding some of the intentions. I’m not pointing fingers at anyone, simply saying that it is hard to have an informed discussion when the details may be fuzzy.

    In full disclosure, I was at the meeting because my house is close enough to one of the stations to be seen on the aerial. I followed all of this closely many many years ago when I was on the citizen’s group of the 15-501 Major Investment Study and have always thought it would be great to have a station near enough to my house that I could walk to. I’m not sure if a light rail train going near my house would be any noisier, smellier or dangerous than the constant string of CHT buses that go by my office. And anyway, back then I thought it would be in place by the time by children went off to college. They’ve been there, done that. Now I’m hoping maybe by the time their kids go to college. I think it’s important to consider the options in view of what our world will look like in 15-20 years, not what it looks like now.

  2. Nancy Oates

     /  May 18, 2011

    You’re right. It was Laurin Easthom. I’ve changed it in the post. Thanks.

  3. Terri Buckner

     /  May 18, 2011

    There are buried utilities running along Fordham Drive too. It sounds like this plan is also going to cross over the reclaimed water pipes from the OWASA treatment plant to campus.

    Isn’t the Mason Farm route the one the university wanted several years ago for the alternative route into campus (during the Columbia St. widening brouhaha)?

  4. Terri, the alignment discussed over the last few years and presented as recently as several months ago had the line running along Fordham north of Morgan Creek.

    How they plan to cultivate support when the alignments are still in flux is a bit of a puzzle.

    While the electric train seems the best alternative over the long haul, focusing on that aspect doesn’t make sense. There will be no significant Federal or State dollars for this project as long as we have the kind of density we do along the proposed route. And as much as some of the folks who have served on Council wanted to populate the Hwy. 54 corridor with a dozen East54’s to get that density, I don’t see community support for that level of development (I’m not in the minority here).

    I’ve supported a hybrid bus rapid transit (BRT) approach for over the 8 years this has been discussed. A hybrid BRT strategy could leverage existing rolling stock, could be deployed incrementally as funds become available, has the flexibility to address today’s bottlenecks – like the drive out to RTP – while not sinking all our resources into a bit of a pie in the sky dream to go electric in the short term.

    Linda, I’ve ridden on a few electric rail lines across the country and while the engine is quieter than a large diesel, there still is significant rattle and hum from the rolling stock. It would be hard to move tons of steel at speed through your neighborhood without noticeable impact.

  5. Linda Convissor

     /  May 19, 2011

    I think reaction often depends on your history. I grew up in suburban NJ (and now my sister leaves in the Chicago suburbs) where the closer you live to the train station, the more valuable your location. Living along the line but not close to the station might be different. Though where I lived, the Erie Lackawanna, ran big diesel (I think diesel, anyway they were big and loud) trains literally behind people’s backyards in some of the higher income neighborhoods. The trains ran about once an hour, less frequently than proposed here, but they definitely were an impact, but it was just a fact of life and not seen as bad. In La Grange, IL, the train to Chicago crosses the major downtown street, right in front of a Barnes and Noble, and literally stops traffic when it goes by. I think they are working for a change to this, but it’s been like that for years. Again, when it’s part of the infrastructure you depend on, it just becomes part of the landscape you deal with. If you value it, you may have a different experience of the impact.

  6. Nancy Oates

     /  May 19, 2011

    Already we have bumper-to-bumper traffic from Manning Drive to I-40 at 4 p.m. weekdays. Buses would help somewhat, but shuttle trains don’t have the traffic jams that roads or complex train lines do. Though I might not be quite so enthusiastic if the train were literally in my backyard.

  7. An electric train appropriately sited would be great but is it really a possibility in the next 10 years? Considering the kind of traffic flows we see in and out of Chapel Hill, it will be decades before the system addresses some core problems – linking high trafficked areas like RTP – to Chapel Hill in a usable fashion.

    Proponents of light rail say that this isn’t a problem as new development will shift to areas surrounding the new line. Really? How likely is it that the jobs Chapel Hill residents fill in RTP will shift also? Where does it leave folks who currently live to the west and north who work here? Will they move to that new corridor?

    The proposed 1/2 cent tax could support a hybrid approach which will have the flexibility and reach to deal with today’s known bottlenecks and issues. We have wisely secured most of the corridors so when the time comes and our country has recovered from prosecuting three wars and bailing out Wall St., we might be better positioned to move ahead. Until then, light rail, as cool as it would be, just seems like a distraction.

  8. Steve

     /  May 20, 2011

    I wish that people in this area would stop thinking that their education ends when they walk out of UNC. We always get half-way plans that are pseudo-scientific and ignore reality. Largely, because most of the people making the decisions fail to notice anything in the Town or County other than whatever they use.

    I am willing to bet the person “planning” this didn’t know there was a school there. He probably thought he was locating near the shopping.

    Basically, light rail is a great idea. Frankly a station near the school is a good idea. Another “planner” who has most likely never gone to the place they plan to build. And who the heck is some “planner” to start deciding where schools will be located.

    Maybe we could start getting some of the good urban planners and not the ones who get kicked out of or can’t make it in bigger places.

    In the words of Bugs Bunny “What a maroon.”

  9. Steve

     /  May 20, 2011

    Wish I could edit. This is actually a case of someone mostly likely with no stake in the schools, so the attitude is screw them. 26 years in one place is a long time. Maybe it’s time to retire?

  10. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  June 6, 2011

    What surprises me about the light rail proposal is that it does not relieve traffic on 15-501, but instead is built through the Army Corps flood control property, then along 54 which doesn’t have the traffic of 15-501. Town planners say that they plan to rezone the area between Barbee Chapel Road and Downing Creek to encourage future dense development, (i.e. on the Town’s periphery)and that the Glenwood shopping center and elementary school will be densely rebuilt…at an intersection (54 into 15-501) that is presently jammed much of the morning and afternoon. All without relieving traffic to the commercial, school, sport and office complexes lining 15-501 from the Durham line to Manning Drive.

    It would only bypass 15-501 and its commercial districts, but is to be paid for by C.H. and Carrboro businesses and residents for the benefit of future developers and commerce along 54. What does the Chamber of Commerce have to say?