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Raleigh asks for more high speed rail options

(The following story by Bruce Siceloff appeared on the News Observer website on September 8, 2010.)

RALEIGH, N.C. ó The City Council on Tuesday backed away from taking a stand on any of the state's proposed downtown routes for a new fast-train line from Raleigh to Richmond, Va., and asked the Department of Transportation to add other possible routes to its study.

The council asked DOT to analyze three alternative train paths - two suggested by residents in recent weeks and a third broached Tuesday by council member Thomas Crowder.

The new ideas involve railroad bridges that would carry passenger trains high over Capital Boulevard. Crowder suggested running the elevated trains north and south, parallel to the busy thoroughfare, as part of a broader downtown development project.

The options sketched last week by groups of residents would move the trains from the west side of Capital to the east side, crossing on a long curving bridge either just north or just south of Peace Street.

Council member Russell Stephenson said both options looked better than DOT's original proposal to run the trains either on the west side of Capital through a Norfolk Southern rail yard near the Five Points neighborhood, or through a CSX yard on the east side.

"It doesn't matter to me which one they choose," Stephenson said in an interview. "Either one is going to have significantly fewer impacts, it appears to me."

The Norfolk Southern option had looked like a heavy favorite - backed by city planners and a citizen task force - until Five Points neighborhood residents organized their opposition a few weeks ago.

They worried that train noise and vibration would rattle their homes, erode their property values and drown out their sidewalk conversations. The Five Points opposition dominated a City Council public hearing last week.

Mayor Charles Meeker scoffed at the worries about train noise Tuesday. He said he hears noisy freight trains and quieter passenger trains every day from his home in Boylan Heights, 200 yards from the downtown rail intersection known as the Boylan Wye.

The state's high-speed rail proposal would silence the warning horns sounded by all trains as they approach rail crossings, Meeker said, because all crossings would be closed or converted to bridges.

"Whichever way this goes, we're not going to have any more horns, so there's going to be less noise overall than we've had in the past," Meeker said.

Norfolk not leaving

The recommendations approved by the City Council included Meeker's call for Norfolk Southern to move its freight yard out of the city, if DOT chooses that path for its new passenger trains.

Meeker's idea brought a rebuff from a Norfolk Southern official. "We're not going anywhere," Durwood Laughinghouse, the railroad's North Carolina vice president, said after the council vote. "We just cannot locate outside this area, and that's been our position all along.

"It looks like they were trying to satisfy everybody with everything, instead of taking a real position on the future. And who knows what's going to happen."

Rick Baker, a spokesman for residents of the Brooklyn-Glenwood neighborhood near Five Points, rejected Meeker's prediction that the high-speed project would reduce noise in neighborhoods near the tracks.

"I see worse [effects] with high-speed rail than with Norfolk Southern," Baker said. "We know what we have with Norfolk Southern. We all moved into our neighborhood with those tracks there and with the traffic they have, and we're all OK with that."

The City Council recommendations included a list of steps DOT should take to address problems with the proposed train routes. They included a replacement for the city's Durant Road Fire Station in North Raleigh and pedestrian bridges over the tracks at Jones and Hargett streets downtown.

Residents want decision

Anne Carter, a Five Points resident who lives on Bickett Boulevard near the Norfolk Southern tracks, criticized the council's refusal to recommend for or against any of the train options.

"I would have loved for them to be more focused on the alternatives," Carter said after the meeting.

Patrick Simmons, DOT rail division chief, said his staff will continue to evaluate the proposed alternate routes for downtown trains, along with other public comments on the proposed Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor. DOT is accepting comments through Friday online at www.sehsr.org .

By late this year or early 2011, Simmons hopes to report to federal agencies his recommended route for the 162-mile track from Raleigh to Richmond. After DOT picks the path, Simmons will order more engineering studies to work out details and mitigate local problems along the route.

A DOT engineer last week rejected one of the new suggestions for a rail bridge over Capital Boulevard, but Simmons said he would continue to explore suggestions for a better solution.

"There are some things that just physically won't work," Simmons said. "But that doesn't mean the idea - or what they were trying to imagine a solution to be - couldn't be made to work."

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

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