WILMINGTON — The ambitious, complicated, and expensive rail-realignment project is moving forward, despite some delays from Hurricane Florence.
The latest developments include a grant proposal to help produce preliminary engineering the City of Wilmington’s decision to hire a full-time project manager.
Take an in-depth look at rail realignment: This ambitious railway plan could reshape Wilmington. It could also cost a billion dollars
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.
The project’s total costs could run between $500 million and $1 billion dollars and will require county, state, federal, and private commercial funds to complete.
According to Laura Padgett, Wilmington’s rail realignment coordinator, “The project will improve quality of life, public safety, traffic congestion, and housing affordability within the City of Wilmington; and also create new and innovative economic development opportunities through more efficient shipping in southeastern North Carolina to the Port of Wilmington, eliminating ‘last mile’ delays and opening new shipping routes in rural counties.”
Padgett has submitted an application to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) for a $2 million grant. If approved, the grant would cover preliminary engineering and as much as 30 percent of the National Environmental Protection Act documentation required before the project breaks ground, Padgett said.
The grant received a number of supporting letters, including New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender and Columbus counties, the North Carolina State Ports, and federal representatives, including Congressman David Rouzer and Senator Burr.
Padgett said the FRA considers the “application complete and project eligible,” adding that the award status will be decided around February of next year.
CSX on board?
Perhaps more importantly for the long-term viability of the project was a letter of support from CSX Transportation.
During the first years of the rail realignment project, it seemed CSX CEO E. Hunter Harrison 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 resumed conversations with state officials and over the summer announced a scaled-back version of the original terminal.
The letter of support from CSX isn’t the same as a full commitment to the rail project, but it does indicate the company isn’t averse to the idea of a major infrastructure project.
Wilmington moving forward
While the rail realignment program involves a host of public and private players, it originated in Wilmington and is unlikely to move forward without the city’s support.
The city has now posted a job announcement for a full-time project manager and coordinator, which is “a big step and shows the City’s intent to move this project forward,” Padgett said.
Padgett said she and Wilmington Planning Director Glenn Harbeck continue to work with various organizations, including CSX and “other private rail companies, including [the] North Carolina Railroad Company.”
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