Places in Peril 2012: Durham Beltline Railway

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1957, courtesy of Open Durham

Why It’s Important:
In 1890, after engineering a merger with his three largest competitors, Brodie Duke began building his own rail line, arcing along the western and northern edges of town. This Durham Beltline completed a loop linking the newly formed American Tobacco Company facilities to each other and to both of the city’s regional railways. By the turn of the century, American Tobacco was producing and shipping 90% of the cigarettes sold in the United States, due in no small part to this rail infrastructure.

While the tracks forming the southern and eastern legs of the rail loop remain active, the Beltline – now owned by Norfolk Southern – lies dormant and abandoned. Relics are still visible, from the Chapel Hill Street overpass north through West Village and Durham Central Park, past Brodie Duke’s Pearl Cotton Mill on Trinity Avenue, turning east across Washington, Mangum, and Roxboro Streets to the junction with the Norfolk & Western tracks near Trinity Avenue and Avondale Drive.

Acquisition of the unused corridor has been a top priority for City administration for more than a decade. Durham’s Trails and Greenways Master Plan deems the Beltline critical to connectivity of the entire system, a direct link between the American Tobacco Trail and the Ellerbe Creek Greenway. The Beltline corridor could also afford Durham a unique opportunity for an eventual light rail transit loop circumnavigating the downtown, helping to manage the ever increasing density of our downtown and inner ring neighborhoods.

Why it’s in peril:
In 2004 Norfolk Southern agreed to sell its entire 25 mile corridor between Main Street and Person County for $6M. City, County, State, and Federal funds were set aside, but the railroad reconsidered, pulling all but the 2.2 mile Beltline segment from the market without reducing the asking price. With all but $2M of the public funding now lapsed or reallocated, Norfolk Southern and the City remain at an impasse. The railroad has recently indicated that it may sell the corridor piecemeal to adjacent landowners and private developers.

What’s needed:
Preservation Durham supports the preservation of the entire Beltline corridor and incorporation of its historic bridges, tracks, signals, and infrastructure into the design of a shared bicycle and pedestrianway. If purchase or condemnation is not possible, the City of Durham should pursue a long-term lease agreement similar to that in place for the American Tobacco Trail, which reserves the corridor for future light rail transit.
Preservation Durham and the City of Durham should pursue a relationship with Greensboro native Erskine Bowles, who was recently elected to Norfolk Southern’s Board of Directors; the former Presidential Chief-of-Staff and UNC head could give Durham a more sympathetic partner at the negotiating table.