Monday, June 24, 2024

City seeking public input on plan to take the railroads out of the roadways

The railroad realignment is in the midst of an environmental review, with a $2 million grant from the Federal Railroad Administration and an additional $500,00 coming from the NC Department of Transportation. (Port City Daily/File)

WILMINGTON, NC — The City of Wilmington is inviting the public to weigh in on a project to reform Wilmington’s railroad network. The goal of the project is to realign the city’s freight rail system in a way that would eliminate various intersections between railroads and municipal roadways. 

According to project materials, the railroad realignment is in the midst of an environmental review; a grant from the Federal Railroad Administration is helping to bankroll the review, as well as initial design planning. A potential start date for construction to actually begin altering the framework of the railroads is still at least a few years out.

A spokesperson with the N.C. Department of Transportation said it is supporting the environmental review process with $500,000 and added the city received $2 million in the federal grant. 

One focus of the realignment project is to accommodate the growth of Wilmington’s population — expanding at a rate three times the national average. It simultaneously supports the broadening of the commercial freight lines, which are based largely around the shipping needs of the port. 

“As the area has grown tremendously over that time period, so too has our need to take the railroad and put it some place else that we can free it from all the entanglements that we have here in town,” said Aubrey Parsley, the director of rail realignment. 

Parsley noted around 30 locations where the railway system intersects with local roadways, and nighttime trains sound the horn three times when approaching the crossings, as required by federal law. This railroad structure is a product of the past, according to Parsley. Its design was undertaken when the railway mode of transportation was a novel, burgeoning industry.

At the time the lines were built, railroad companies were scrambling to connect as many places as possible, as efficiently as possible. More than 100 years later, Wilmington’s railroad network, which initially enclosed the city, now jets through various high-traffic roadways. 

“Over time, as more and more people moved here and the roadways grew and grew, it’s obviously no longer outside the city anymore,” Parsley said. 

Though in the past the network served as a widely-used transportation system for people, as well as industrial trafficking, the existing railroads in Wilmington now mostly serve as a link between the Port of Wilmington and a rail yard in the nearby town of Navassa. 

“We have these two things growing at the same time: population and freight,” Parsley said. “What we want to do is look at our infrastructure and figure out a way where both of those things can grow independently of one another frictionlessly.” 

Various groups have indicated their support for the project, which began with the deliberations of a task force in 2015. New Hanover County, the N.C. Railroad Company and the N.C. State Port Authority all have expressed enthusiasm to see the railroad system in Wilmington streamlined. As has the Cape Fear Realtors organization, which represents more than 2,400 real estate professionals. Further, the company largely in control of the local railroads, CSX Transportation, has signed a letter of support. 

“CSX has been an active participant in the Mayor’s Task Force in Wilmington to study this project and will continue to participate in discussions with city leaders on this project,” a CSX representative wrote in a 2018 letter, which expressed support for a grant application made by the city. “Future consideration must be given to existing railroad customers along the current alignment, as well as compensation for any CSX property intended to be used for any part of this project. However, we are supportive of this application and of continued design and review of the project.” 

Parsley said he envisions a network of railroads that do not overlap and interfere with the infrastructure of the city, to create an environment in which population growth and increasing freight loads are not entangling traffic patterns.

Wilmington City Councilman Kevin O’Grady said Parsley was hired specifically for this project. He, too, would like the end goal to involve largely removing the various railroad networks from highly-traversed City land. 

“If you get a freight train coming through there and it gets stuck, it really cuts the city off,” O’Grady said. “And, dangerously, it cuts the city off from the hospital.”

A city spokesperson said comments from the public can be collected on the “virtual open house website” —

“Staff will hold two live chat sessions to interact with the public in real-time during the open house Thursday, Nov. 19 from 5 p.m. – 7 p.m. and Tuesday, Dec. 1 from 3-5 p.m.,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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