Wednesday, July 24, 2024

City officials see potential in proposed trolley system for downtown Wilmington

The red, dotted line represents the 5 miles of track that would run directly to the port. The solid orange line would be the trolley system around Wilmington. Map courtesy City of Wilmington.

Glenn Harbeck, the city’s director of planning, development and transportation, recently proposed that Wilmington City Council consider a plan to relocate a rail line to the other side of the Cape Fear River.

The move, Harbeck said, would support a more efficient system for increased freight traffic to the Port of Wilmington, along with adding a citywide trolley network to accommodate future growth without gridlock.

Currently, there are 32 at-grade street crossings in Wilmington, and there are no less than 180,000 motor vehicles that drive across these crossings each day. With the Port of Wilmington expecting to increase its tonnage by 15 percent in the next five years, traffic congestion could soon become a nightmare, Harbeck said.

In his presentation to City Council, Harbeck suggested that city council consider relocating a 5-mile rail track to the other side of the Cape Fear river so that freight trains will have a direct course to the port without going through the center of the city. If this were to happen, modern trolley cars could use the existing track as public transportation for the city—loosening the dependence on motor vehicles and the resulting street congestion.

A new trolley system “could allow for 20,000 employees, students, and visitors to come downtown without cars every day,” he said. “There are about 10,000 housing units and 20,000 persons within one-quarter of a mile of the proposed line today. How many could there be in 25 years?”

City officials expect Wilmington to continue to grow, as well. In fact, by 2040, officials expect 130,000 more people in New Hanover county, with 50,000 alone living within Wilmington City limits.

“Think about where Wilmington was 25 years ago,” said Harbeck. “I-40 had just opened, Hardy Parker Farm would not become Mayfaire for another 14 years and New Hanover County had about 140,000 people. Today there are 220,000. Things change quickly.”

Within the next year, national sustainable biomass company Enviva will add at least three trains per week to transport their wood pellets from a facility located in Sampson to the port of Wilmington. Another two trains per week will soon transport locally built Vertex rail cars, from its soon-to-open rail car production plant in Wilmington.

Hardback also brought up the rail industry term “the last mile,” meaning the transportation of goods by rail becomes the most difficult within the last mile of its journey. In Wilmington, 28 percent of the cost to transport goods comes within the last mile, through the city center to the port.

“If we don’t change course, if we don’t change direction in the next 25 years and if you think about the traffic situations that we’re facing now, keeping Wilmington moving is going to be a huge issue,” said Harbeck. “This provides an opportunity to address this issue regionally–not just within the city of Wilmington.”

Council members agreed that adding a new rail line along with the trolley could be a significant move in the right direction for Wilmington.

Councilwoman Laura Padgett said the next move would be to conduct a feasibility study.

“We have to have a feasibility study to get anything done,” Padgett said. “You can’t just build transportation projects without knowing how they’re going to be designed, where they’re going, and how much they’re going to cost.”

Padgett and Harbeck have both met with N.C. DOT representatives who are interested in the project, along with possibly helping fund the study.

“We need to organize getting more information to the public,” said Councilman Neil Anderson. “I think this will open peoples’ eyes and we need to get the whole city behind it. I know people will say it’s expensive, but how expensive will it be if we don’t do it?”

For more information about the moving of the rail lines and the addition of a trolley system, you can view Harbeck’s presentation here. Harbeck is scheduled to give his presentation again at the Aug. 17 New Hanover County Commission meeting.

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