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A Train Station for Hillsborough

August 20, 2010

In a few years, a train whistle could mean something for Hillsborough other than delays at grade crossings.

A new train station has been proposed for construction just south of the town’s historic center. It would be located by Orange Grove Road, below the intersection of US 70A and S. Churton St. The town’s draft Rail Station Small Area Plan advertises the site as a 15-minute walk from downtown Hillsborough. In the map below, the station property is shaded in blue, downtown Hillsborough is represented by the green marker, and the adjacent Tuscarora neighborhood by the blue one.

The site is presently occupied by baseball fields and wooded areas.

[Approximate site of the planned station platform, near the northwest corner of the property. Looking south into the ballfields.]

The proposal goes far beyond a train station, incorporating 30 acres of residential, commercial, and civic uses. The construction is planned to proceed in phases, with the station itself coming first, and the adjacent developments over the next twenty years.

[All phasing images are taken from Hillsborough’s Rail Station Small Area Plan.]

Phase 1, completed over the next 1-5 years, would include only a platform stop, a bus turnaround site, and the initial road buildout: Tuscarora Drive and Orange Grove Road would be extended to meet at a traffic circle, with a new access road constructed to service the ballfields and the manufactured home park.
Phase 2, within 5-10 years, would include a larger station, possibly including a co-located police station, a standalone fire station, and additional parking. Commercial and residential spaces would be built out, served by surface parking.
In Phase 3, 10-20 years out, the surface lot becomes a deck, and a civic/arts center is constructed.

The final buildout would be quite large. Although the development would be physically separated from downtown by the Eno, the tracks, and 70A, the proposal would extend downtown’s density south towards the sprawling, auto-oriented environment which surrounds Old 86 down to the interstates.

[Renderings of the proposed final build-out. Above, looking southwest from the approximate site of the Churton Street overpass; below, looking northwest from the southeast corner of the property. Created by Tom Campanella, via the Rail Station Small Area Plan.]

The station would be connected to the rest of the town by a circulator bus service, as recommended by the Triangle’s Special Transit Advisory Commission in 2008. The fare-free service would be operated by Orange Public Transit, and run 8 times a day. The only bus route that presently serves Hillsborough is the TTA route 420 to Chapel Hill (which is operated by CH Transit during peak times, and Orange Public Transit mid-day), and OPT’s door-to-door paratransit service.

There would be several daily Amtrak trains stopping at the station. As of August 2010, the Carolinian and the Piedmont Service pass through Hillsborough. Amtrak plans to add an additional daily Piedmont train in 2012. If the NC Railroad’s commuter rail is built, it could also make a stop, although the May 2010 NCRR commuter rail study predicted low ridership for the area. The same was not true of Amtrak service, however. A 2007 study by the company predicted that a Hillsborough stop would see an annual 2,600 boardings and yield Amtrak a net gain of $56,000. The study calculated only the cost of stopping and maintaining self-service Quik-Trak ticket vending machines, and ignored the capital costs of the station’s construction.

The station would not be a part of the long-proposed light rail service between Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh. As Hillsborough is sited along the northwest-southeast ridge which is home to the NCRR mainline, it would be far to the north of a hypothetical line between Durham and Chapel Hill. Nevertheless, a Hillsborough stop would still offer a faster drive (or even a bus trip!) to an Amtrak station for many Chapel Hillians. (Open larger map for distances and estimated travel times from downtown Chapel Hill.)

90% of the new station’s required $5.26 million in planning and construction funds would come from NCDOT’s Station Improvement Program. The remaining 10%, as well as operations costs, would be furnished by the town.

Citizens and planners have several concerns about the plan. The station will suffer from visibility problems, due to the rail line’s right-of-way being depressed through downtown Hillsborough. Although both train and auto traffic get through the urban core uninterrupted, it creates a challenge for any project that hopes to build a station serving the Churton Street area. As it would likely be difficult and expensive to create a station spanning multiple grades, like at High Point, the station will be farther from downtown than might be ideal. Sidewalks and street-crossings will need to be created to provide easy pedestrian access between the station development and the town as it exists today.


[The Churton Street overpass: excellent for through trains, not so excellent for passengers going to Churton Street. At left: beneath the overpass, looking east; at right, looking northwest.]

[Current pedestrian amenities along Churton Street. Looking south from the bridge over the Eno.]

Residents of the neighboring Tuscarora neighborhood are concerned that the station– and its associated retail and residential components– will bring increased crime and pressure to densify its surroundings. Fear of development pressures on the relatively low-density Tuscarora area have resulted in recommendations for a Neighborhood Conservation District, which would help to preserve the neighborhood’s existing character. Other area residents are opposed to the proposed elimination of area grade crossings, and the traffic problems which could result. Under citizen pressure, the Town Board voted against a similar closure proposal in 2002.

Hillsborough’s would not be the only new train station in the Triangle; Durham’s new station was completed in West Village’s Walker Warehouse in 2009, and Raleigh’s new Union Station could be completed within the relatively near future.

The proposed stop would be the first passenger service in Hillsborough since March 1964. The previous train station, located in West Hillsborough at the southern end of Nash Street, was demolished sometime after 1974. Its site, along with the spur tracks which abutted it, are presently occupied by a large gravel lot.

[Note: spur paths are approximate, and only intended to give an idea of the land use for the site as a whole.]

Service at the site began in the late 1850s. The older station was part of a mill village commercial center, established slightly farther from downtown than its proposed replacement. In 2009, the remaining commercial strip was renovated into the West End Depot, creating a compact destination for arts and retail. Along with several others, the original station site was rejected during the early phases of the new station’s planning process.

[The old station during the 1960s, looking northeast. Via the Orange County Historic Information Cache.]

[Aerial circa 1950, looking east. The rail spurs to the station’s north are now part of the large gravel lot which covers the entire site. Excerpt of Cone Mills photograph, from the Orange County Historical Museum via the Orange County Historic Information Cache.]

[1970s aerial, looking northeast. The disused station in its built context– the long grey-roofed building in the lower right. Excerpt of Cone Mills photograph, from the Orange County Historical Museum via the Orange County Historic Information Cache.]

[The former station site, 25 August 2010. Looking northwest from the tracks towards the West End Depot redevelopment project.]


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