Light Rail in or over downtown Raleigh?

As a reminder, there are some transit related events that are going on right now. Remind yourself by clicking here if you’re not sure what I’m referring to. Anyway, two events are taking place in Raleigh this week and the downtown portion of the light rail plan is sure to bring controversy.

Some of the presentation materials have been posted online and I’d like to cover some of it here.

An excellent read, with images that I will be linking to, is over at The Indy. I recommend reading that first.

Rail route is blurry through downtown Raleigh via

To recap, planners have a few alternatives to work with when the light rail trains, coming from the west, head towards downtown Raleigh. If you look at the initial alternatives study, the map of those routes look like the spaghetti bowl below.

Click for full, larger view.

The next step planners took to eliminate some of these routes was to look at each one and evaluate them on five parameters:

  • Potential Transit Ridership
  • Consistency with Plans and Studies
  • Stakeholder Support
  • No Irresolvable Environmental Impacts
  • Technical and Financial Feasibility

If one of these parameters failed for the studied route, it was thrown out. After that elimination round, we were left with this map.

Click for full, larger view.

Four plans remain and it will be these four that are open for comment at the Triangle Transit events this week. We can step through each one and take a look.

D2 and D3

D2 and D3 are similar except for the street they head north on when leaving Union Station. D2 would have tracks on Harrington Street while D3 would put the tracks on West Street. Both routes bring the trains on a flyover over the Boylan Bridge and would result in something like you see here and here.

As the trains head to downtown from NC State in the NC railroad corridor, “difficulties” in having the light rail line play nice with freight and future high-speed rail are why the plans to go into the air are on the table. I’ll admit the Boylan Wye is a complicated cluster of tracks but the freight rail companies do have a reputation of being against anything that could possibly disturb their operation.

According to planners, D2 and D3 would make the light rail line go right into Union Station, giving us that very important connection to other modes of transportation. It also avoids headaches with the track layout of the Boylan Wye.

These plans were moved forward because each one:

  • Capitalizes on potential development opportunities on the west side of downtown.
  • Serves both Glenwood South and downtown.
  • Does not include additional overhead structures.
  • Supports location of proposed Raleigh multimodal center (Union Station) concept.
  • Meets the Purpose and Need for the project

I’m not quite sure I agree with these. A train that goes into the air and weaves through downtown blocks may actually take away from development opportunity because it is consuming so much space for itself. Once the train weaves through, that land cannot be developed.

I haven’t been to a meeting yet so I’ll find out for myself later this week.


D5 involves the same flyover going over the Boylan Avenue Bridge but instead of heading to the northern end of Union Station it goes south, towards the convention center. The line would run through the core of downtown, along Salisbury and Wilmington Streets, and back into the NCRR corridor to the north.

My feelings are the same with the flyover over the bridge but I’m not quite sure when the train finally touches down. This rendering and this rendering suggests that the train will most likely continue to be elevated all the way to South Street. Another thing to note is that other routes were turned down because they impact traffic on Dawson and McDowell Street. This leads me to think that D5 will continue to be elevated on South to go over McDowell and come down before Salisbury Street.

Again, lots of elevated tracks that take away from development opportunity. This plan passed because it:

  • Does not cross McDowell and Dawson Streets at-grade.
  • Penetrates core of downtown Raleigh.
  • Does not impact Morgan, Hargett, and Martin Streets.
  • Provides more direct access to the Convention Center.
  • Meets the Purpose and Need for the project.


No renderings are provided for this scenario. Interesting.

D6 avoids the Boylan Wye and the possibility of going over the Boylan Avenue Bridge. The plan has the light rail line coming out of the NCRR corridor down by Charlie Goodnight’s and it hits the street at Morgan. It continues East and takes a left turn onto Harrington Street and continues on its merry way. According to the report, the plan:

  • Avoids Raleigh Wye and does not interface with freight and Southeast High Speed Rail track issues.
  • Does not include additional overhead structures.
  • Capitalizes on potential development opportunities on the west side of downtown.
  • Serves both Glenwood South and downtown.
  • Meets the Purpose and Need for the project.

The negative with this plan is that if the light rail line went down Morgan Street, the optimal station stop would be at the intersection of Morgan and West Street, the Union Station stop. But if you’ve been out there to see it, Morgan is not quite so flat in that area, a requirement for a light rail station to be ADA compliant. I’ve heard this is also the more expensive alternative, but will confirm at the meeting, because a lot of road work would have to be done to get that Union Station stop, something that is very important to the connectivity of the system.

Wrapping Up

I like to see all the materials first before I choose which direction to take my opinion but from what I have seen so far, the D6 route seems to be the best choice on the limited amount of information available.

D6 is the most pedestrian friendly and turns downtown streets into more efficient modes of transit, moving more people through without building more roads or widening them. In my opinion, trains on elevated tracks that are not over roads take away from potential development.

I’d be really interested to see what kind of road modifications need to be done to Morgan to get that Union Station Stop at the West Street intersection. This will likely be my first question to answer at the meetings.

The Mayor’s Passenger Rail Task Force supports a route similar to D6 and the Downtown Living Advocates are speaking out for the same thing.

Whatever your opinion may be, make sure to send it in.

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  1. I was definitely looking for the D6 ‘images’. Odd that that alternative didn’t have something like the other. Perhaps it was added late?

    There hardly ever seem to be any perfect alternatives for these rail projects near DT. I just hope we can make our best effort to select the best possible and move on to actually implementing it someday. I’m all in favor of rail as a way to solve some of the present and future transportation challenges in our area, even though yes, it costs money now and in the future to maintain.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. For the last several weeks here at Rutgers I have been modeling my vision for Union Station. I kind of wish a lot of this had come out before I started!

    Maybe I will post some images of what I did here when I am finished. Some folks might find it interesting. It is based on a combination of reality from the Union Station study released last year and pie in the sky from my own imagination.

    All of these elevated scenarios for the light rail line worry me greatly. I would prefer street level whenever possible. In my own design it runs down W. Morgan St., which I made one way again and cut down to one lane. Whether that is even remotely realistic I don’t know.

    My site plan:
    Rendering of where the W. Morgan St. bridge over the train tracks currently is:

  3. From some of the presentation material I see, crossing McDowell and/or Dawson Streets at grade seems to be an issue. This I need more explanation on. My only guess is that the train could be long enough to block traffic if it comes to a red light, so if it was waiting behind some cars at Salisbury, the back of the train would stick out onto McDowell. But with Morgan being one way, you could have a transit only lane.

    Jonathan, those are awesome renderings. From my understanding the Union Station designs are still in the concept phase and I think will take more form when the final track routes are more solid. I hope you plan to send them in as comments because we need creative, innovative design like that at Union Station.

  4. I’ll learn more on Wednesday, but D6 is my strong choice given the advantages for supporting economic development along the route. Conversely, the D2&3 alignments not only fly over Boylan Ave, but also the Wye, killing any hope to cover this big ugly ditch with development adjacent to Union Station.

    I’m also going to ask why the D6 alignment couldn’t continue down Morgan to head north at Wilmington (back on Salisbury). This allows for a better connection for commuters, while avoiding the talked about difficulty in navigating the hump on the Morgan Street bridge while turning north onto Harrington or West Street.

  5. Good comments. One item to take note: Union Station needs to be an iconic structure and a high rise type structure. High rise meaning very vertical. Hotel office space, retail and most importantly, room for start-up companies. This is an opportunity for Raleigh to establish an area for entreprenuers/visionaries/technology start-ups. This is a great mix for ALL.
    Better think big Raleigh, stop cutting corners. This should not be a transit hub, it should be a transit/technology hub (Union does mean working together)

    No doubt someone will complain about dollars (someone like crowder, odom or that clueless, what’s his name bonners). By that time, they will all be off city council and people with vision will be on panel

  6. I like the D6 option from what I’ve seen. I just hope that when we look at these plans we don’t box ourselves in and forget about scalability. All options have to be able to grow in the future as the city grows.

  7. Everyone who can… Please come to the Canes game this Sunday. The rival sabres fans are planning a hostile takeover of the RBC, and we can’t allow this to happen! For Raleigh!

  8. I absolutely agree with you, but I’m not sure what that has to do with light rail other than that we need to make sure the arena district is well connected to any plans. :)

  9. Johnathan: Excellent point!!!!!!!

    This conversation NEEDS to be part of the planning for light rail. This discussion MUST take place and a connection/stop needs to be near the property where a future arena will be located. DO NOT want to hear our city, planners, citiizens say that we shuold have planned for this. NOW is the time to plan for this, it’s critical to the future developement of downtown Raleigh as a “TRUE” entertainment destination.

    Because we all know waht will happen, they do not plan, they want to put a future stop and tell us we cannot due to the budget or right of ways, etc.

    Someone needs to bring this up at the meetings!!!!!!!!!
    An arena downtown connected by light rail (keeping in mind, there needs to be outside parking for the tailgaters)

  10. I handed some printouts of an “idea” of mine that attempts to combine the best aspects of D6 with the best aspects of D5. Though of course he didn’t have time to do a full technical analysis he seemed pretty intrigued. He wasn’t much of a fan of D5 to begin with, but said “If we actually do D5, maybe this is the way to do it.”

    The main downside is that this would be somewhat slower than any of the alternatives shown, but the travel time from end to end (North Raleigh to West Cary) would still be in the vicinity of 40 minutes.

  11. Thanks for sharing orulz. Its a great plan I’m just curious how the engineers would feel combining your plan with the chosen light rail car, a rather long one actually. I found out at the meeting that the preferred train vehicle makes really wide turns so getting into and out of the Salisbury/Wilmington corridors may be difficult, according to the feedback I got.

  12. In the vicinity of 40 minutes is still too long, IMO. We need to sell the idea of light rail to people that love their cars and are not eager or accustomed to using rail. How well is that going to go when, according google maps, that same trip takes 25 minutes by way of Capital and 440?

  13. Boy, there are tons of problems with each of these plans. If they are pursuing a vehicle that can’t make tight turns, how could they execute any of the plans but D2 and D3?

    Light rail as of today is ultra expensive, but if you really want to make it ultra ULTRA expensive, put in long segments of elevated guideway. D2 and D3 are terrible. Not only are costs exhorbitant, but the beauty of light rail is integration with the pedestrian experience, and these plans kill that.

    I really like Orulz’s plan as it better serves East downtown, the convention ctr, and Memorial Auditorium. I do NOT like long streetcar segments, though, as I’m not a fan of mixed modes sharing a street. Are we talking about an electric LRT vehicle requiring overhead wires? You want to run that on either side of the State Capitol???

    Thomas, if you want to kill all hopes of mass transit in the area, keep insulting those who cite costs. Costs are a massive problem with every rail system in the country, and the practice of ignoring this is irresponsible.

    The goal here is to provide exclusive access guideways for public transit vehicles to move people efficiently between their intended destinations. Every mode we understand in 2011 has its own problems. I don’t see why a dedicated busway along the tracks that exits onto Hargett and resumes a dedicated busway around Peace doesn’t solve all problems being addressed.

    Buses can make 90-degree turns, they can run 80 mpg on a busway, they don’t require special vehicles (CAT can pull other vehicles of of routes, change routes, etc to meet the ever-changing demands of the public), and they do not require massive swaths of impactful destruction on the organic urban fabric. Yes, they are not sexy. Yes, as of 2011 they are still diesel. Yes, bigger cities in the USA didn’t go this route. However I think we are smarter than they are.

    I keep reading about people who don’t want to become Atlanta proposing plans that are functionally identical to what Atlanta did 50 years ago. We can do better.

  14. I was actually very intrigued by the D5 proposal. Having ridden the Tri-Met MAX in Portland OR, I was able to see how a proposal like this would make it through Raleigh. When the trains are going through downtown to Pioneer Square, the lights are coordinated for their movement. It didn’t seem slow at all. And, once they were outside of the downtown corridor, they would definitely hustle. The same can be said for the Denver light rail through LoDo.

  15. There’s a lot of talk about people using the light rail for commuting but I don’t think that’s going to be the main draw for it. I can imagine it being used more for going out at night and avoiding the parking hassels and the need for a designated driver. It will be a hit for coming downtown for parades and festivals as well. All the talk about the 10,000+ workers in the core of the city ignores the fact that few of them are likely to live along any of the proposed routes.

  16. Living Downtown, I see the possibilities in our neighborhoods for maximizing the opportunities associated with light rail to initiate desirable residential, commercial and business development. As with the high speed rail routes, it’s also in the interest of Downtown residents to encourage a rail alignment that fosters pedestrian mobility and connectivity between the different areas of the city.

    Unfortunately, transit authorities have chosen a vehicle that works well for getting commuters in and out of the Downtown from the north and west, but unfortunately, itʼs too long (3 cars totaling 270 feet) and less agile at navigating through the Downtown street grid.

    We are presented with nine alternative light rail alignments through Downtown, only four of which are viewed as technically feasible options. However, the two (D2 & D3) alternatives with the most support from city planners and staff (having heard this directly at the workshop) both require flyovers that arc diagonally over the Boylan Wye and eliminate any future possibility of development and pedestrian connectivity for this area.

  17. Getting in and out of the Salisbury/Wilmington corridor should not be that difficult, even for light rail vehicles. It may require taking a small triangular chunk out of the corner of some of the city-owned lots in front of Memorial Auditorium. I have a feeling the City of Raleigh would gladly donate these chunks of land.

    As for busways versus light rail, busways do have their advantages which Dana lists, (Although they do not generally run 80mph even on busways), but light rail has its advantages too. Light rail gives you is the ability to run 300 foot long trains. In contrast, the longest buses you can get are like the 60 foot articulated buses in Chapel Hill.) One driver can drive a single vehicle that carries at least five times as many people. Light rail vehicles also last longer, the right-of-way does not need reconstruction as often, gives better ride quality, electric propulsion, etc. The technology for gated grade crossings exist and is time-tested and reliable for rail; such technology is not nearly so mature for busways (see the Orange Line in LA). Buses running on-street are extremely slow unless they have dedicated lanes and signal priority, and if they do, then the impact to the streets is pretty much exactly the same as that of light rail. Finally there are quite a few examples of busways that got converted into “HOT” or “HOV” or even “Hybrid” lanes – and the effect is that introducing cars adds traffic, chokes up the facility, and the transit gets slower. It’s even worse for bus lanes on downtown streets that are’t physically separated and made inaccessible to cars; they often become “flashers-on” parking lanes, or delivery lanes, or taxi cab pickup lanes. Generally if you build a busway facility to the same standard of a light rail line, it costs nearly as much to build. The reason busways are so often so much cheaper is because it’s easier to cut corners and put buses in mixed traffic with cars where it’s difficult. But that greatly diminishes the utility of transit.

    As envisioned, the street running would not share a lane with cars. It would be a dedicated lane set apart from traffic by a curb or barrier of some sort. It would involve replacing the on-street parking and loading zones on one side of Wilmington/Salisbury with a light rail line.

  18. Excellent points oruiz. Also light rail has the flexibility to run along the rail corridor as well as on the street. And light rail has also proven to be much more attractive with choice riders, where buses in this country have been predominately serving demand riders who don’t have other alternative means of transportation. But as Raleigh has spread out with decades of suburban sprawl, enhanced bus service is also needed as a companion service to effectively connect light rail stations with neighborhoods.

  19. Johnathan, GREAT JOB!!!!! I like the concept in general. Would change a few things, bu very good. Your right on, think GRAND. I would make your building 30 or more floors (room for start-up hub or companies/entreprenuers, hotel is a MUST, two to three floors of retail, mall type environment for people connecting, layovers, downtown shoppers, etc.)

    Great foundation, take it to the next level. For the city of Raleigh, anything less than this, “you just don’t get IT”, the budget should be extensive for this project, this will be in downtown Raleigh as a center piece for decades to come (DO NOT GIVE THIS DESIGN TO A LOCAL RALEIGH DEVELOPMENT?DESIGN FIRM, especially the group who designed the convention center and CAM)

    Go to a NYC, Chicago, S.F. or International Firm for the design and development of this project!!!!!

  20. That is a pretty awesome project, Jonathan. I’m sure it was fun to draw that up. It is definitely the kind of scale I’d like to see at Union Station, without looking at all the engineering details of course.

  21. I have seen the rendering plans of the Union Station Proposal, its wonderful.A nearby Office/Hotel tower would be a welcome addition as well.Location is great,it would be a more focal point to the downtown area.

  22. […] The Raleigh Connoisseur – A Downtown Raleigh Blog март 2011 Carmelo Santio: Ernest Hemingway~ Theres nothing noble in being superior to your […]

  23. I say build a commuter rail not a light rail that goes to major points in the triangle. I would hate for the transit system to be built and never see growth like Baltimore, Cleveland, and Atlanta.

  24. Ok….already we are into 2014 and yet, No progress.And the People’s input go unheard of.What the Hell are City Officials doing Dragging their Heels about this. People that live in or around the Downtown area need these Service to get around the city. Is it really going to take 20 to 30 years to have Mass transit.Slow grotwh is No Growth. Looks like Politicians and City Officials Have their say and Screw the People.

  25. @mark: I’ll tell you what they are doing… They celebrate for the Hillsborough Street “renaissance”, which is actually a nail in the coffin of building a useful light rail line in an area where it would prove successful. They are busy fighting over reducing a building’s height by 5-10ft. Lastly, they are busy trying to get re-elected.

    To be fair, they don’t necessarily want to see Raleigh fail. They do care, in their own way, but their vocal supporters and backers ask for all these little things that mean little to us. Without a full-time city council it will be hard to accomplish the things we want to see in Raleigh.

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