After the last freight trains rumbled along the Durham Beltline in the 1980s, people started talking about turning the old railway lines into a footpath that would connect the North Side neighborhoods to the city centre.
Now the city has received a $9 million federal grant that will allow it to finally build the 1.75-mile trail that people have been thinking about and planning for for decades.
The paved path for cyclists and pedestrians will run from the West Village north across West Trinity Avenue, then turn east, where the rail corridor divides the Duke Park and Old North Durham neighborhoods. It will end just beyond where the tracks pass under Avondale Drive.
The trail will be a linear park, with benches and art and places to linger, as well as a way to get from place to place without driving, said Niles Barnes, deputy director of the East Coast Greenways Alliance.
“It will serve people commuting to work, bike rides, school, shopping or eating, but it will also be a busy weekend location,” Barnes said. “I think this might be the most visited park in all of Durham once built.”
Long trail ahead
Construction is not expected to begin until next year, but the grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s RAISE program is an important step for a project that is long in coming.
The Belt Line was included in a joint city-county master plan approved in 2001. But the city was unable to purchase the 18.8 acres that make up the rail corridor until 2018, when it received a $7.8 million federal grant administered by NC. Department of Transport.
Now, with local money, the city has the $16 million it needs to build the trail, said Dale McKeel, the city’s bicycle and pedestrian planning coordinator.
McKeel said the trail will reach a part of northeast Durham not served by greenway trails, giving residents a safe, off-road way to get to the city centre. It will connect to the American Tobacco Trail south of town and the Ellerbee Creek Trail, filling a gap in the East Coast Greenway, a planned 3,000-mile trail from Florida to Maine that crosses the Triangle.
There will also be a dozen other access points crossing residential streets, McKeel said.
“So while the rail corridor sort of divides neighborhoods, it will be a way to connect neighborhoods,” he said.
The city’s parks department and community groups will hold events and make other efforts so residents don’t feel like the trail is just an intrusion or something other people can use. said Senator Natalie Murdock, whose district includes southern County Durham.
“I think there are a lot of different things we can do to make sure people feel they own, and I think Durham is the perfect place to do that,” Murdock said. “That’s how we roll. We are an inclusive community. We want people to know, “It’s up to you.”
Murdock chose his apartment in Research Triangle Park in part because it’s close to the American Tobacco Trail, the 22-mile greenway built on an old rail line. She said trails and greenways have become more popular than ever as people look for ways to exercise outdoors during the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s one of the reasons she believes the Republican-dominated General Assembly set aside $29 million last fall to help complete greenway trails across North Carolina, La first expenditure of its kind on trails by the State.
“People like to cover up bad stuff in Raleigh, but this was one of the few truly bipartisan projects,” said Murdock, a Democrat. “People see the value in it.”
A path traced 132 years ago
The Belt Line arc through Durham was defined in 1890. Brodie Duke built the line, mostly on land he owned, so trains of the Lynchburg & Durham Railroad, which his family partly owned, could reach Duke’s warehouses and tobacco factories without using the NC Railroad.
In 1900 Duke sold the line to Norfolk & Western, predecessor of Norfolk Southern Railway. The City and County of Durham and the NCDOT first approached the railway to sell the corridor in 2004.
But it wasn’t until 2017 that Norfolk Southern agreed to sell to The Conservation Fund, a national environmental group, who then sold it to the city at a discount a year later.
The tracks and many crossing signals remain, although they are overgrown in many places. Some of the tracks are walkable, McKeel said, but many will be incorporated into the trail along with some of the signals, as reminders of the trail’s origins.
Some design challenges remain, including how to connect the Beltline, which crosses West Trinity by bridge, with the Ellerbee Creek Trail, which begins at street level. It is also not yet known how the trail will cross the NC rail line and connect to the American Tobacco Campus and Durham Station, the city center’s public transport hub.
The downtown section of the trail runs through what the city calls the Innovation District, where tech companies move into old industrial buildings and developers build new apartments. Durham Central Park, the farmer’s market, Carolina Theater and Durham Historic Sports Park are all within a block or two of the trail.
So is Bull City Running, the shoe and clothing store which Kim Chapman and Jason Page opened off Washington Street in 2020. It’s the couple’s second, following their debut 14 years ago at the Southpoint Crossing mall near the American Tobacco Trail.
The nearby ATT presence has made the store a natural meeting place for fun shopping and other gatherings, Chapman said. They expect the Belt Line Trail to have a similar effect.
“We saw what a resource the trail is,” she said. “There is a lot of foot traffic. There is a lot of cycling traffic. There are usually people with active lifestyles who choose to live near the American Tobacco Trail.