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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Passenger rail from Wilmington to Raleigh takes another step forward, federal funding available

A historic building on N. Fourth St will be the future home of the city’s multi-modal transportation center, to include passenger rail. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

WILMINGTON — It’s been half-a-century since Wilmington had a passenger rail service, but with support from area officials and the state, bringing connectivity back to the region could now have federal backing.

The Wilmington City Council approved a resolution Tuesday supporting the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s federal submission to identify Raleigh to Wilmington as a future rail corridor.

READ MORE: Updated rail trail route includes access to planned Northside grocery store

ALSO: NCDOT awards $680K for phase one of Wilmington Rail Trail

NCDOT applied in March for the federal funding, as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021. The same month Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s board passed a resolution, also in support.

The IIJA includes $66 million in passenger and freight rail infrastructure investment with $44 billion to be distributed through the Federal Railroad Administration’s discretionary grant program.

The FRA established the corridor ID program in May 2022 to help bring more passenger rail lines to the country and opened grant applications in December for agencies to put forth requests. NCDOT included the Raleigh to Wilmington connection, along with 12 others.

As part of the application process, NCDOT continues to seek resolutions of support from its public partners and stakeholders.

“Intercity passenger rail is a valuable and necessary component of the future transportation network of North Carolina,” WMPO director Mike Kozlosky said.

He noted the area could benefit greatly in terms of safety, connectivity, economic advancement and overall regional growth with a new rail line.

The FRA will announce which corridors are awarded a grant of $500,000 this summer. The money can be used for developing a scope, schedule and cost estimate for a service plan. There is no local match required. The first step must be completed by spring 2024.

The next two steps, final design and construction, also come with federal financial assistance, requiring a 10% and 20% match, respectively.

Thereafter, applicants selected outline the purpose and need for the connection and public involvement is required. A technical analysis will be required, to  include a travel demand forecast, operations review, station, labor and access planning, fleet planning, conceptual engineering, and an estimate on operating and maintenance costs. An environmental analysis must be done, as well as a benefits-cost review.

The final step would be project implementation.

The conversation about bringing passenger rail back to the area began locally in the 1990s, according to previous Port City Daily reporting.

In June 2022, NCDOT announced it would be updating a feasibility study created in 2005. The Southeastern North Carolina Passenger Rail Study evaluated potential service connecting Raleigh to Wilmington and considered two alternatives: a route through Goldsboro, totaling 131 miles, or one that passes through Fayetteville, at 187 miles.

Results from the study reported strong interest in passenger rail service from Wilmington to Raleigh. Costs at the time were estimated between $65 million to $188 million. It also approximated 45,000 to 74,000 riders would take advantage of the transportation.

The state agency will receive updated cost estimates, ridership forecasts and other considerations when updating the study, for future planning. It will work in coordination with rail company CSX, providing freight transportation throughout North America.

Steps have already been taken locally to make way for passenger rail. The Wilmington Multi-Modal Transportation Center feasibility study was completed in 2000 and discussions were ongoing at that time regarding rail between Wilmington and Raleigh and Wilmington and Charlotte, Kozlosky said.

ALSO: ​​WMPO rehabs historic building as part of transportation center in Brooklyn Arts District

The WMPO is renovating 525 N. Fourth St. in the Brooklyn Arts District, near Edward Teach Brewery as a multi-modal center and its new home offices. Once complete by September, the building is intended to serve as the city’s transportation hub, with improved facilities and convenience for public transportation users. It would combine Wave Transit, the downtown trolley and inter-city buses, as well as future passenger rail.

The WMPO is also working with the city on the Wilmington Downtown Rail Trail, first to convert the abandoned rail corridor from downtown to the Love Grove community, near Screen Gems Studios, as a 1.7-mile multi-use path.

The end goal is to implement passenger rail along a portion of the same corridor — Third to Eighth streets — which used to connect Wilmington to the East Coast before closing more than 50 years ago. 

WMPO and NCDOT’s rail division are meeting bi-monthly to oversee design elements to allow for the planned service.

“The railroad has been an important part of our history and I believe that the establishment of this corridor would be integral for the future of southeastern North Carolina,” Kozlosky said.

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