WILMINGTON – The City of Wilmington is making headway to sort out the engineering, environmental and economic logistics for its extensive and potentially billion-dollar rail realignment project.
Design work is nearing the 15% mark; federally-required environmental studies are almost halfway through; and the roles of stakeholders are being clarified through an economic feasibility study to be released this June, according to Aubrey Parsley, director of the project. All this work should ultimately narrow down options and lead to a final decision on the new freight route.
“The rail realignment project has quite a bit going on right now, which is definitely a good thing,” Parsley, who was hired in 2019 to oversee the project’s execution, told city council in a meeting Tuesday. “We have some important milestones in the months ahead.”
Today, the freight route travels from CSX’s Davis Yard in Navassa, over the Cape Fear River, through the city limits, to enter the Port of Wilmington. On its course, it entangles bustling streets and cuts through crowded parts of town.
The rail realignment project aims to change and shorten that route to one that crosses the river and bypasses city limits. The existing tracks would no longer be needed and could be repurposed into a method of public transportation, such as a light rail.
As the regional population continues to climb at three times the national average, and roads get busier than they already are, it’s pertinent to relocate and improve the system. The project also comes at a time when using trains to transport cargo is growing, a trend driven by the port.
Rapidly reaching engineering goals
By this summer, 15% of the design process is expected to be complete, and Parsley anticipates the project will approach its 30% engineering goal by mid-2023.
Another breakthrough for the project was marked by the release of a preliminary hydraulics analysis. The report considers potential passageways through the Cape Fear River, Alligator Creek – a stream crossing Eagle Island in Brunswick County – and their tributaries. It identifies initial design criteria for engineers to start conceptualizing alternative routes.
The Coast Guard still needs to provide guidance on navigational and regulatory requirements for plans to move forward on a new bridge. The platform would cross the Cape Fear River, just south of Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. Parsley explained the maritime clearances are essential to defining that path.
“Answering those questions will have a lot of impacts on the future design and engineering choices that will be made,” Parsley said. “The good news, though, is that we now have enough information put together on this project to formally initiate that process with the Coast Guard.”
Environmental studies enter second phase
Two years worth of environmental studies for the project, required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), are almost halfway through.
Funded by a $2-million Federal Railroad Administration grant and $500,000 N.C. Department of Transportation match, the three-part review is expected to conclude by mid-2022.
Parsley simplified the process: “Just know that with each step, we’re doing more and more in-depth analysis on fewer and fewer route options. So we’re really evaluating those trade-offs and narrowing down the focus for what will be eventually the route recommended for this project.”
An initial screening assessment is finished, and the city is now moving onto the second phase of the study.
The next stage is comparable to the first, Parsley said. It involves drafting an alternatives analysis that should help pinpoint some preferred routes, rather than just feasible ones. The public and regulators will have an opportunity to see those drafts and offer feedback before a final NEPA document is produced in the third phase.
This June, resident can attend a public input session on the ecological impacts. The event will mark the midway point of the environmental review work.
Forming a ‘business plan’
During his presentation, Parsley reminded council that the new infrastructure needs a “business model.” For that reason, an economic feasibility study is underway to define the roles of stakeholders in the new rail.
CSX, the North Carolina State Ports Authority and North Carolina Railroad are all participating in the process.
“Who should own this new piece of railroad? Who should operate it? Who should maintain it? What benefits are available to substantiate different stakeholders taking on those roles?” Parsley asked.
The results of the study, which should answer those questions and more, will be shared in June. Parsley said, if all goes as planned, it will distinguish the key players’ functions.
“We’ll basically have the team put together around the project,” Parsley said. “The logical next step will then be to develop a playbook for how folks will actually execute in those roles.”
Following the feasibility study, an implementation study will be produced. That would take between 18- to 24-months.
This time next year, the City of Wilmington will need to start seeking more funding to bring its vision to fruition.
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