Gashes Through Downtown Durham

Quick note before the main post today. Durham Neighborhood College, which I wrote a post on is now accepting applications. You can apply here and I have to say that I really enjoyed the experience last year. With a ton of changes in Durham and within the government, I wish I had the time to go back every year, but I highly recommend it to everyone living in Durham!


Looking at a satellite map of downtown Durham, there are two features that stick out to me: The Durham Freeway and the North Carolina Railroad tracks. These two features have very different histories, but both have a similar effect of carving up our city.


The railroad tracks harken back to the very beginnings of Durham, when Dr. Bartlett Durham donated land for a railroad station. Without that train track, you could argue that a city wouldn't exist here. Meanwhile, the Durham Freeway's history is mired in urban renewal. When 147 was built, it destroyed. It infamously cut through the thriving black community of Hayti. Hayti and Black Wall Street are two of the most important stories in Durham. These were communities and institutions that were established after the Civil War and after slavery. They represented the entrepreneurial spirit and community that continues to define Durham's identity today.

Regardless of their histories, today, the tracks and the freeway cut through downtown Durham. They separate life on a human scale. They were built for giant vehicles and in a time when Durham is trying to get back to walkable, bikeable, people-friendly streets, they are scars on downtown that serve as huge barriers to the growth of the city.

It's worth saying that any ideas for fixing these gashes are very unlikely any time soon. I just hope momentum builds over time to address these issues. But even in the longterm, what can be done?

Durham Freeway


Looking at the construction map of projects below, there are a few projects south of 147. It would be amazing to connect those projects to downtown in a meaningful way AND allow for more development where the Durham Freeway currently exists. Imagine how much more density, life, vitality and room could be added to downtown. There would be more room for private development, more room for public housing, more room for parks, more room for bikes and pedestrians. Durham would have much more potential to grow into a place with shared prosperity.



Option 1: Tunnel Time

Thinking about tunnel construction downtown, images of Boston's Big Dig come to mind. Digging tunnels is extremely expensive and the construction process would certainly be disruptive to downtown. However, as Elon Musk works to lower the cost of tunnel making through The Boring Company, there may be an opportunity for a cheaper, more efficient tunnel in the future. Sure, he is using his machines to create unnecessary routes between DC and Baltimore, but the advances in tunnel-making are pretty impressive if true.

So, if technology improves, what about putting cars UNDER downtown? Then, we could knit the city back together and have much more room for people! Let me reiterate, that I am not sure this solution will ever be cost effective and I would only support it after understanding the financials, but we are day-dreaming here.

Option 2: End it Early

I put this second because I feel it is the much more reasonable option. It will still have a TON of pushback, but I have no reservations about supporting it.

Currently, the Durham Freeway ends at I-85. Now that the East End Connector is almost complete, the Durham Freeway could simply end right after that connection and be replaced by local streets. If you are driving on 147, the lanes all come together and bottleneck down to two lanes (one each direction). Would that cause congestion? Yep! That's the point! If you are really trying to get all the way around the city, now you can take the East End Connector and loop around on I-85. You should be incentivized to avoid cutting through downtown.

North Carolina Railroad Tracks


This gash is a little trickier to address (even after factoring in the difficulty of dealing with another party, NCRR). Amtrak uses this line as well and there is a downtown station that it serves. However, it would be amazing to get rid of trains running through our downtown and instead, extend the Durham Belt Line.

Take a look at the current map of active train tracks in Durham:


There is already a line that travels north, pretty much to I-85. Could there be a project that build rail line along I-85 and eventually connects back to its original route? I have no idea if this is even possible, or financially feasible. Even if it is, we are making the choice to prioritize downtown over East Durham. The gash along Elizabeth St still remains and creates a barrier between East Durham and the downtown area. Maybe instead we should be thinking about getting ride of the train tracks that go up Elizabeth St?

Of course, there is always the idea of another tunnel! Again, I say that jokingly, but who knows? It may be feasible in the future.

What are your thoughts? Are these two gashes as detrimental to downtown as I think think they are? Do you have any other solutions?

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