What’s going to happen to the downtown loop?

Durham’s most infamous traffic feature is probably the bizarre “downtown loop,” a series of distinct roads which were fused into a large one way route encircling the city center.

The loop was was originally constructed to keep factory workers out of a busy downtown as they commuted to and from their jobs. Unfortunately, the loop didn’t help for long, since people started fleeing for the suburbs and the tobacco industry started winding down shortly after it was completed.

Ultimately, the city was left with a huge moat of asphalt diverting drivers around a ghost town.

Downtown has obviously taken off again despite the loop, and there has been a lot of talk about how best to correct the traffic pattern in recent years. Now, it seems like there’s some progress, and the Herald has an op-ed in support of the project.

Although the benefit of making downtown more accessible (via foot or vehicle) is clear, there are other benefits; a redesigned streetscape would allow for additional development opportunities. A rendering of how reworking the loop could impact downtown was created by Cleveland and Church Partners and posted to the BPAC mailing list:

The biggest challenge with reworking the loop is, unsurprisingly, funding. According to the Herald, a streetscape improvement project would require $30M in funding, and it’s difficult to imagine the loop bumping off several other higher priority projects. According to the DDOT, simply converting the roads back to two-way and not doing other improvements could be accomplished for a more reasonable $12M.

The loop is a tricky problem. Downtown is a prominent success story now, and making it more appealing holds a lot of value to the city’s image. But how much money is the city ready to spend here, when downtown is clearly getting by well enough with things as they are? Are we better off working to improve less visible infrastructure in under-served parts of the city first?

I’ve always hated that damn loop. I definitely want it gone. But I can also see why it might not be perceived as the best bang for the buck right now.

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