Wednesday, April 24, 2024

A return to roots: Burgaw on shortlist of rail stops along Wilmington-to-Raleigh line

The Historic Train Depot in Burgaw could be converted back into a station to service passenger rail, though not all residents were on board with the idea. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — In homage to a town with its origins steeped in railroad history, a grassroots group is rooting for the Town of Burgaw to be the first stop on a possible passenger train route from Wilmington to Raleigh.

READ MORE: Federal rail grants posted this November, NC leaders support Raleigh to Wilmington corridor

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

Eastern Carolina Rail, a nonprofit organization founded by entrepreneurs Steve Unger and Gene Merritt, hosted the first of many events to garner support from communities regarding a potential future rail line that would serve the southeastern North Carolina region. More than 50 people were in attendance at a meeting at the Historic Train Depot Tuesday evening, including a representative from the North Carolina Department of Transportation. Discussion surrounded a potential Wilmington-to-Raleigh line.

“We really believe this is a way folks will want to get around in our state into the future,” NCDOT Rail Division Director Jason Orthner said at the meeting.

NCDOT’s proposed line could run through Burgaw, Wallace, Warsaw, Goldsboro, Selma and Clayton, though specific stops have not been determined. Some areas would need new stations while others, such as Warsaw and Selma, already have stations in place for Amtrak, the provider of rail service on the new line. 

Many people at Tuesday’s meeting were mostly in support of the initiative to bring rail back to town, though a few raised concerns regarding safety and using the historic building as a station.

“The building is sacred to us,” former mayor Pete Cown said. “Whatever is being considered, saving this building, in its current state, is very important to us.”

His comment was met with applause.

The oldest railroad depot in the state, the renovated Historic Train Depot was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986. Built circa 1850, the depot was restored in 2009 to preserve its history. A portion of the structure that was burned during the Civil War is behind a protective translucent wall; the floors and beams are made of salvaged wood.

The building served as a Confederate headquarters for retreating generals and their troops during the Civil War and was the holding site for more than 6,000 northern prisoners in 1865. Now it’s used as a community gathering space — a function that could be retained, according to officials, even if it doubled as a station.

If approved by NCDOT and the town, Burgaw’s stop could be the first on the Wilmington-to-Raleigh line, to run three times a day roundtrip — morning, afternoon and evening. From Wilmington, the train would travel to Raleigh and then other regions of the East Coast, such as New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida.

Unger suggested Burgaw’s Historic Train Depot be converted back to a rail station if the route becomes a reality. Some residents, including Mike Taylor, weren’t keen on the idea.

“The town spent a lot of effort — there’s a lot of history here — to preserve it,” said Taylor, Burgaw’s local historian and contributor to renovations of Historic Train Depot.

The nearly two-century-old rail station expanded in 1898 with additional passenger waiting rooms and rail offices. The addition of freight movement was added to the platform in 1916 as the rail lines connected to northern cities for local fruits and vegetables.

Taylor suggested a modern platform, something as simple as just a ticket counter, be constructed one block over. It would still be near downtown and could provide parking while retaining the historic building “as it was intended.”

Orthner assured the community it would be their choice where a station is located, how it’s designed and what is built to support it. Federal grants, he suggested, are available to assist with the cost of either converting a structure into a station or building anew. Most communities own their own stations, he said, so the expense would not be initially included in the federal grant.

Nationwide, $102 billion has been set aside in the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law specifically for the purpose of expanding passenger rail across the United States — a program Orthner called “the first of its kind.” NCDOT submitted 12 possible corridors to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Corridor Identification and Development Program, backed by the USDOT, to expand rail service. The state’s dozen route submissions were double the number sent in by any other state, Orthner said, with 90 identified throughout the U.S.

Some residents were uneasy about trains stopping as they passed through Burgaw, thus blocking streets and emergency access. Also, noise pollution escalating to nearby residences and the amount of property the rail line would take up were mentioned.

Burgaw Antique owner Johnny Westbrook was worried how additional parking would be built without impacting the character of the town or demolishing properties. He called it a “sensitive issue” he was personally willing to spearhead with state leaders and Eastern Carolina Rail.

“We’re trying not to grow too fast, we want to grow methodically,” he said at the meeting. “Parking would be essential to think about in the early planning stages because you can’t park in the same place you ride the train, so it’s going to affect adjacent properties.”

Merritt — lobbyist behind the construction of I-40 from Raleigh to Wilmington — suggested a parking deck and offered his assistance as he’s worked closely with the city of Wilmington’s revitalization efforts and is familiar with creating needed parking.

“It might not be attractive to some in this town but it’s probably the answer,” Merritt said.

Orthner further clarified the community will be involved with all details discussed and opportunities to provide feedback as the process moves on.

Many expressed excitement for the rail line and the prospect of train travel returning — not to mention the economic boost it could bring to the town.

Orthner said a financial analysis of the rail industry in North Carolina — plus various industries it impacts — reported a $20 billion economic output annually. He also stated rail travel has experienced an increase in numbers as of late.

In 2021, NCDOT reports there were 13% more riders than before entering the pandemic. Last year saw a 28% increase with 522,550 total passengers and this year is on track to exceed the count. The first two quarters of 2023 reported 287,000 riders.

“We’re seeing folks ride the trains in droves,” Orthner said. “And it’s all kinds of people from all walks of life, different economic backgrounds and ways to use the train — visit family, get to work, access healthcare.”

NCDOT oversees the Piedmont and Carolinian rail services, which operate daily and connect Raleigh to Washington D.C. and New York. Amtrak has systems operating throughout the state as well, connecting New York to Florida, New Orleans and Atlanta.

“It’s not robust enough to meet the needs of all citizens of North Carolina and reach all the points east to west in the state,” Orthner said. 

NCDOT’s vision is to reach as far west as Asheville and as far east and south as Wilmington and Morehead City. Orthner touted the benefit of a town being a key link along the route.

“The places we put stations, we work with those communities developing areas around those stations with amenities to connect to the service,” he said. “It creates economic output in those areas and reasons to visit the places and live there.”

This includes collaborating symbiotically with freight service, as the existing freight corridors will be needed to make passenger rail successful, Orthner said.

As pointed out by Tommy Thomas, board member of Carolinas Association for Passenger Trains, the exponential growth at the Port of Wilmington plays a vital role in securing the additional rail connection.

Tracks running through the port property now affix to the Carolina Connector Intermodal Terminal in Rocky Mount. The CCX was built in November 2021 to replace the outdated switching yard in Hamlet, North Carolina. In September the North Carolina State Ports Authority launched daily overnight services to the CCX terminal, marking it the fastest ship-to-rail service on the East Coast. It was also named the number one most productive port in North America in 2022 based on the container port performance index.

The Wilmington-to-Raleigh passenger rail will share the tracks with freight traffic from the North Carolina Ports to Goldsboro. From there, the passenger route will continue along the state-owned tracks — leased by Norfolk Southern — while freight continues north through Wilson to CCX.

Orthner added the Wilmington-to-Raleigh connection checks all the boxes with high-density endpoints, established communities in between, and a way to connect to other systems.

It’s not the first time NCDOT has looked into passenger rail; it first studied bringing back the service, particularly the Wilmington-to-Raleigh path, in 2005. Passenger rail to and from the Port City was discontinued on the old Atlantic Coast Line — predecessor of Seaboard Coast Line and present day CSX — in 1968.

The 26-mile segment through Pender County, between New Hanover County’s Castle Hayne and Duplin County’s Wallace, was removed in 1986. Two senators — Frank Block (D-New Hanover) and Henson Barnes (D-Wayne) helped keep it in the state’s hands. They convinced CSX to deed the corridor to the state in 1994; in exchange the rail company was allowed to bypass certain regulations for maintenance.

The state also owns the downtown corridor from Third Street northward to Castle Hayne. Just northeast of downtown is dubbed “The Smith Creek Junction” by Carolina Association of Passenger Trains, and considered the missing link of the restoration initiative. 

It includes a parcel of land owned by the New Hanover County Board of Education, purchased from CSX in 1994, where Dorothy B. Johnson Pre-K School resides. According to Thomas, the NHCBOE has agreed to sell the land, exclusive of the school, back to the state for the project.

Orthner told attendees Tuesday night the agency would likely complete an updated passenger rail feasibility study by the end of the year. The study will provide stakeholders cost estimates and guide details of service, including times, ridership counts and station stops, as well as corridor alternatives. $75,000 was allocated from federal funds for state planning and research on the Wilmington-to-Raleigh conceptual corridor study.

Eastern Carolina Rail co-founder Steve Unger addresses a crowd at Burgaw’s Historic Train Depot. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

What’s next?

If the Wilmington-Raleigh route is chosen — announced by late November or early December — the entire project could cost more than $100 million to complete, according to Unger and Merritt.

The corridor would receive $500,000 in federal funds for preliminary stages.

“It creates the first set of needed steps to move a project along,” Orthner said.

This will be spent to develop a budget and service plan, and work with communities, freight rails and the public.

“Make sure the project is scoped correctly and you’ve got the right forethought,” Orthner said.

Another grant, for planning and development, would be 90% covered by federal funding and 10% from the state. The final design and construction aspect is an 80/20 split.

It could take anywhere between seven and 12 years before the project comes to fruition, with 10 being a “reasonable expectation,” Unger said.

“We hope to accelerate that process and pay good attention to our line here,” he added.

He also said not every city Eastern Carolina Rail has suggested will be selected but expressed Burgaw’s and Wallace’s importance.

“We want to put southeastern North Carolina on a map,” he said.

Unger encouraged residents to contact NCDOT and state legislators in support of the rail line.

He’s already in touch with Sens. Thom Tillis and Ted Budd. Rep. Rouzer’s district director Chance Lambeth was in attendance Tuesday. Other local leaders are on board, including Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, who told Port City Daily last month more opportunities for travel will encourage additional tourists.

“To get rail on this route and these towns’ stations established requires citizen output and citizen interest,” Unger said.

While she wants to hear the community’s concerns and understands there are still issues to address, Burgaw Mayor Olivia Dawson said the town is backing the project.

“We do think this is a good thing and a great opportunity for us to travel up and down the state,” she said at the meeting.

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