Sunday, July 21, 2024

Wilmington’s massive public transit and freight rail project builds steam

Wilmington's rail realignment plan would take miles of freight rail in the city and turn it into a light rail public transit system. The project would require major infrastructure investments, including a new rail bridge over the Cape Fear, and could cost upward of $1 billion. (Port City Daily photo | Benjamin Schachtman)
Wilmington’s rail realignment plan would take miles of freight rail in the city and turn it into a light rail public transit system. The project would require major infrastructure investments, including a new rail bridge over the Cape Fear, and could cost upward of $1 billion. (Port City Daily photo | Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON—Wilmington’s ambitious, multi-million-dollar rail realignment project continues to move forward, now drawing support from four counties, as well as state and federal representatives.

The complicated project involves two parts. One part would reroute the freight rail lines that currently circumnavigate Wilmington and construct a more direct route from the Davis Rail Yard in Leland to the Port of Wilmington, including a new rail bridge over the Cape Fear River. A second part would repurpose the current rail lines around Wilmington as a light-rail public transit system.

Take an in-depth look at rail realignment: This ambitious railway plan could reshape Wilmington. It could also cost a billion dollars

Rail Realignment builds steam

Coordinator Laura Padgett, who has overseen the realignment project since its early stages, said the project has moved forward considerably over the last four months.

Brunswick and Pender County announced this week that they were supporting the plan, and according to Padgett, Columbus county has joined them.

“Following a presentation to the Columbus County Commissioners, Columbus County has joined in supporting the project and will have much to gain from an improved access into the Port of Wilmington.  There is private investment there that can make use of the improved access and a great deal of potential trade and shipping opportunity,” Padgett said.

A major question, of course, has been funding. Padgett said the project has developed a relationship with one “large, infrastructure firm” and met with another that was interested in the project.

Rail realignment Padgett said, will most likely succeed as a public-private operation, which means state and federal funding will also need to play a roll. According to Padgett, feedback at the state level has been positive.

“Our State Senate delegation has been interested in the project and has worked to gain support for it.  And the NC House Transportation leadership has continued its interest and support for the project,” Padgett said.

Padgett, along with local planners, have met with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Railroad Administration, which encouraged project leaders to apply for a federal grant with engineering and environmental studies. Padgett said the project was in the process of collecting letters of support from New Hanover and its three neighboring counties, as well as Wave Transit, Wilmington Business Development, the Port of Wilmington, and the region’s Congressional and Senate delegates.

Getting CSX on board

(Port City Daily photo/Courtesy NC Ports)
CSX owns the rail lines in Wilmington in perpetuity, so the city cannot take them by fee simple acquisition under its eminent domain powers. Instead, CSX will have to get on board. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy NC Ports)

Project members have also continued to meet with CSX, which would be a major player – both in terms of granting Wilmington the right to use its tracks and in investing in the infrastructure portion of the project.

For some time, it seemed E. Hunter Harrison, the CEO of CSX, was pulling the rail company away from large capital projects and focusing on efficient logistics. When CSX backed out of a $270-million terminal planned for Rocky Mount, North Carolina, despite being offered millions in subsidies, it seemed to signal the company was not interested in large-scale projects like rail realignment.

After the death of Harrison in late 2017, CSX continues to talk with state officials and last month announced a scaled-back version of the original terminal. Still, even the downsized project indicated CSX isn’t completely averse to infrastructure developments.

“We continue to meet with representatives of CSX and to keep awareness of their important presence in Southeastern North Carolina. The announcement that they will go forward with North Carolina in building an Intermodal Terminal in Edgecombe County will be a boost to the Port of Wilmington and enhance the importance of building a direct route into the Port that does not go through a heavily populated area of Wilmington,” Padgett said.

In the coming months, Padgett says the project will be working with the NCDOT’s rail division and Jason T. Orthner, its new director. The City of Wilmington will also be hiring a project manager and coordinator for the rail realignment.


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

Related Articles