I Walk the Line: Exploring Durham’s 11-mile light rail route on foot

Ninth Street and Erwin Road, Durham

Story and photos by Lisa Sorg

Eleven miles, walked twice. Two cases of heat exhaustion. Countless mosquitoes. Hundreds of cars. Since GoTriangle announced the Durham portion of its proposed light rail line, I have wanted to experience it, not as a simulated fly over, but on the ground. A map is a representation of the route, but it lacks ground truth, the sense of place and people along the way.

Courtesy of GoTriangle

For the next nine days, I’ll post photos, stories, census data and yes, maps from the line and its environs in hopes that readers will consider and discuss the pros and cons of the $1.8 billion project. It will not only be an enormous engineering feat, but the light rail line will have generational effects on neighborhoods, people, businesses and the social connections among them.

Despite the road signs that have sprung up around Durham that say, “No light rail”, there is a lot of local and federal support for the project. (Full disclosure: I’m for it.) The federal government will chip in half of the cost—$900 million—while a part of local taxes, passed by a voter referendum, will provide 25 percent of it, about $450 million.

However, on a state level, that support died this week on Jones Street. The legislature all but reneged on its funding commitment, decreasing it to a measly $500,000. GoTriangle has said the train will keep a rollin’ so to speak. There could be other funding sources to tap, and time to tap them. We should know more by mid-October.

The public can comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement until Oct. 13. A public hearing is scheduled for Durham on Thursday, Oct. 1, 4–7 p.m., Durham County Commission Chamber, 200 E. Main St., Second Floor.

I encourage you to also walk at least a portion of the line. Bring water, bug spray and sunblock. And enjoy getting to know your city from the ground up.

Next: Alston Avenue

Courtesy GoTriangle

At one of two matchbox-size, lemon-yellow houses on East Pettigrew Street, a woman sat on her porch, scanning her mobile phone, as two boys rough-housed in the driveway. A man was nailing new address numbers on the house, and fixing a screen door.

“Make sure no one can get in,” the woman told him.

I asked her if she had heard about the light rail line or the Alston Avenue Station that would be built across from her house. She had no idea.

“How will you deal with the noise?” I asked.

At that moment, as if on cue, a westbound Amtrak train sped by. She looked at me, as if the train’s horn answered the question. “Between Amtrak and the freight train, it’s about every 30 minutes,” she said. “And I have a new grandbaby.”

I told her it would likely be 10 years before the station was built. “Well, I won’t be living here then,” she replied.

Screen Shot 2015-09-22 at 8.24.49 PM
From City of Durham’s GoMaps: The blue outlines represent many vacant lots near the proposed Alston Avenue station.

The houses are so close to the street—5, 6 feet at most, that It’s difficult to envision who, if anyone, will be living along this stretch when the station arrives. Yet after decades of disinvestment, this neighborhood has enormous possibility for the construction of safe, affordable housing, which is badly needed. Center Investment Corp., based in Durham, owns 1.1 acres of vacant land at Murphy and Pettigrew streets. (My bet is that it becomes a parking lot, but here’s hoping.)

A block south, another small lot, owned by Beverly Weaver of Richardson, Texas, sits vacant. Many streets, such as Grant and Colfax, have scattered empty lots that could support small single-family homes.

murphy street
Murphy and Pettigrew streets

The Alston Avenue Station will be the line’s easternmost stop at Pettigrew and Murphy streets, a once-vibrant area that in the mid-20th century was home to the Gann Hosiery Mills. At its peak, the mills’ 150 employees produced 120,000 pairs of socks a week. Then the mills closed, the Durham Freeway was built, displacing hundreds of residents, and years of disinvestment followed.

Neighborhood residents are displeased about the placement of the Alston Avenue station, James Chavis told Council earlier this month, because it will be located west, not east of that major thoroughfare, as originally planned. GoTriangle engineers said a “historic” water tower is in the way, [see pages 177-178] among the factors that forced the change. (The water tower is seen in old mill photos, but considering Durham allows the demolition of other historic structures, this is a weak argument.)

For a neighborhood already disconnected by bridges, highways, [page 181] and existing rail, this is yet another obstacle for residents to get to the train station. To them, it’s another indication that their concerns aren’t being considered as carefully as those of the well-heeled interests downtown.

“We were looking forward to it and didn’t receive it. How do you think that makes us feel?
We are also part of Durham.” —James Chavis


The train will run along East Pettigrew Street, which is penned in between the North Carolina Railroad Corridor and the Durham Freeway. Neighborhoods north of the tracks are disconnected by these manmade geographic barriers. Another barrier is the lack of sidewalks. I seem to be the only person walking from downtown to the neighborhood. From Fayetteville Street east, sidewalks are only intermittent until you approach the Alston Avenue bridge. Beneath that bridge, homeless people have tucked bedding and other belongings in the dark crevices at the top. With the traffic above and below, it’s a wonder how they sleep.

Heading back downtown, the John Avery Boys & Girls Club is quiet; school is in session. In front of the building, on the club’s sidewalk, children have scribbled messages, expressing their love for the place and the people.

avery play
Playground, John Avery Boys & Girls Club, 808 E. Pettigrew St.
miss gwen
In front of the club

Census figures within a half-mile of the proposed station at Pettigrew and Colfax streets
(Source: Durham Neighborhood Compass; numbers have been rounded)

North of Pettigrew  Population 1,278

Latino                   20%                          Median household income                      $20,654
White                      7%                          Renter-occupied housing                                76%
African-American 72%                        Rent is 30%+ of income                                   54%
Under 18              25%                          Households receiving SSI (disability)             12.5%

South of Pettigrew (two census block groups)  Population 2,753

Latino            7-10%                            Median household income                 $16,000-$19,000
White                  2%                            Renter-occupied housing                                    70-74%
African-American  85-88%                Rent is 30%+ of income                                        53-66%
Under 18      20-37%                           Households receiving SSI                                    7.5-9.5%

herald sun warehouse
Old Herald Sun warehouse, looking north from Pettigrew Street

©2015 Lisa Sorg

13 thoughts on “I Walk the Line: Exploring Durham’s 11-mile light rail route on foot

  1. Doug

    If light rail was coming in to be EFFECTIVE , it would roll Durham, Chapel Hill , Pittsboro, Cary, Apex , Raleigh , RDU International , RTP …. at a minimum. I don’t support it as proposed


    1. bjones1031

      I do think there was initial hope to expand to RDU, Raleigh and parts of Cary. Those sections are still on the Go Triangle website. Funding was squashed for those parts of the rail, but would be reconsidered if part was ever built. So on one hand, you got to start somewhere. But I agree that the longer rail to the other areas would help out far more people. Also, to the author of this blog… just wanted to say I appreciate someone looking at the pros and cons. There are so many people who loudly oppose (I’m in favor of a thoughtfully designed system), but I find that most people who oppose have reasonable concerns underneath it all that should have a forum for discussion. I appreciate you taking into account both sides.


  2. Tom Englund

    When you get to the Farrington Road area, I hope you’ll talk with residents here. My name is Tom Englund, and I can introduce you to many of the area folks who’ll be affected if the Light Rail is built. You can reach me at (919)493-6218. I’ll be reading your entries with interest.


  3. many

    Lisa, How long do you think the neighborhoods demographics along Pettigrew you list will remain after DOLRT? Developers will buy it up at premium prices and put expensive condos, office space and shops there, forcing the low and medium income folks out (longer commutes and drive times, more cars). I have seen it happen in several cities and the people who really need transit along with the taxpayers are the ones that lose every time with LRT.


  4. Felicia Mundy

    I don’t support the light rail system as proposed. The ridership numbers are inflated and we only have to look at Charlotte to see how it will not reduce traffic. Durham/CH should wise up like Wake and look at more cost efficient and more effective ways to deal with our traffic issues. You should dig into the the numbers that Go Triangle has provided, they don’t add up.


  5. Lisa Sorg

    Many, I worry about the displacement issues as well. That’s why citizens’ groups and the city have to demand affordable housing be built and preserved along the rail line. Otherwise, the very people who need access to public transit won’t have it.


    1. many

      Lisa, time and time again LRT has been built with the result being a boon for developers and low and middle class being dislocated. Your old paper “the Independent” just had an article on Durhams epic fail on affordable housing. Orange County is talking about floating a bond for affordable housing yet you and I know that it will not be built anywhere near this LRT line, meanwhile the LRT sucks the financial life out of public transit for other locations. The reality is that people who need access to public transit already do not have it. So much for “demanding”.

      There are many other problems with this line. I would think as an investigative reporter you would be asking the hard questions rather than admittedly going in with a bias to be confirmed.

      I will revisit this blog from time to time as you “walk the line” and with your permission, try to bring some balance to the discussion.


  6. lisasorgnc

    Many, As someone who wrote extensively about affordable housing for the INDY, I’m well aware of the issues around the transit stations. Affordable housing will probably not be built around Orange County’s light rail line, yes, but that’s because the land is largely UNC-owned. The demographic characteristics of the OC line are much different than that of Durham’s.
    As for my bias, that doesn’t prevent me from looking hard at the line. I’ve been critical of the Alston Avenue siting, for example, both at the INDY and on Bull City Rising. I revealed my “bias” as a matter of transparency. I don’t think the route is by any stretch perfect, and it will require vigilance to ensure the affordable housing is preserved and created. That said, in and of itself, I don’t think light rail is a bad idea.


    1. many

      Hi Lisa,

      LRT is inherently inflexible. It was not a bad idea when there were no other options. It was not a bad idea when it actually connected hubs where people want to go and where density supports it. “If you build it they will come” is not a successful strategy. Vigilance is no match for people experienced in the development of real estate and the interests that are pulling and pushing the DOLRT.

      I hope you really do look hard. Have you really looked into what the subsidy per trip will need to be for DOLRT? Of course all transit is subsidized but the roads also enable commercial transport of goods and services, paying taxes as well as getting people to/from work. DOLRT will not enable commerce except moving people and the individual bringing home small amounts of groceries. I hope you really think through the economics of 1.8 Billion dollars, who and how many will be served, who really stands to gain and then tell me you still think its a it’s a good idea.

      I will be following your trek in spirit. Bring plenty of DEET.


  7. Pingback: I Walk the Line: Dillard Street, a no-man’s land | 36degreeslatitude

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