Driving Excellence in Public Transportation

Area Rail Projects Face Big Hurdles

Nov. 11--SOUTHEASTERN N.C. -- One large-scale rail proposal for the region is inching ahead, while another may be stalled in its tracks.

One project would restore the abandoned rail line between Castle Hayne and Wallace, connecting to an existing rail line from the Raleigh area to accommodate freight traffic. Reviving the old line also could increase the chance of returning passenger rail to the Port City, a long-term dream of many local officials and residents.

Yet a cost analysis prepared for state lawmakers earlier this year dealt a blow to supporters of the restoration of the abandoned rail line. Rebuilding the line would generate an estimated $6 million to $22 million in benefits over 30 years, according to the analysis from Parsons Brinckerhoff. The firm concluded the benefits are "modest" compared to the $108 million to $124 million project cost, in 2014 dollars.

State Sen. Michael Lee, R-New Hanover, said the project shouldn't be viewed "in a vacuum" based only on a cost-benefit analysis. He said the possible line shouldn't be pushed as a build-it-to-see-what-comes project, but rather as an available resource for a larger development -- such as a major manufacturer coming to the region or the Pentagon deciding a rail line is needed for strategic purposes.

"(The rail line) could be part of an overarching plan and strategy where this is one spoke in the wheel to accomplish that goal," he said. "That's where we need to look at it as opposed to a one-off, cost-benefit study."

Wilmington officials also are leading an effort to relocate the CSX rail tracks out of the heart of the city across the Cape Fear River to Brunswick County.

In Wilmington's grand vision, step one is moving the rail across the Cape Fear River on a path away from buildings and homes. Moving the rail line would include a need for a new railroad bridge across the Cape Fear River near the Port of Wilmington. Step two is to bring trolley service to the former route, bringing a new form of mass transit through residential neighborhoods, connecting them to downtown Wilmington.

Many specifics will come into focus in a feasibility study that will examine both logistics and possible funding sources. In the coming weeks, the city will issue a request for proposals seeking firms interested in completing the study.

Once the study is complete, the city's Rail Realignment Task Force will make a recommendation to the mayor, said Laura Padgett, the committee's chairwoman.

Once a firm is selected, Padgett hopes to have a completed study in under a year.

"Part of the concern here is urgency," she said. "We've got a port that is now being very proactive in bringing business here."

Additional business will impact the region as it brings increased truck and rail traffic, Padgett said. In the long term, she said officials can plan to move the trains across the river while simultaneously planning a trolley system.

"My sense is there's a huge amount of interest in using that track for a trolley," Padgett said, adding it could connect to the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Meanwhile, Mayor Bill Saffo recently appointed three new members to the task force, rounding out the group at 10 people from the public and private sectors. Aside from Padgett, the members are:

-- Marc Hamel, a rail project development manager for the N.C. Department of Transportation.

-- Randy McIntyre of MCO Transport.

-- Frank Williams, a Brunswick County commissioner.

-- Glenn Harbeck, the city's director of planning, development and transportation.

-- John Cease of Clear Track Ahead, which uses GPS technology to integrate railroad locations with 911 address mapping.

-- Councilman Earl Sheridan, a member of the region's Transportation Advisory Committee.

-- New Hanover County Commissioner Beth Dawson.

-- Laura Blair, senior director of external affairs for the N.C. State Ports Authority.

-- Jim Van Derzee, an industrial development manager with CSX.