Monday, July 22, 2024

Amtrak hopes to connect Charlotte to Raleigh to Wilmington as part of $80-billion rail investment

The old Atlantic Coast Line entered Wilmington beneath 5th Street (pictured). The passenger line was discontinued in 1968. (Port City Daily/Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — If U.S. Congress approves a massive infrastructure plan, Wilmington could see a passenger rail line return to the city for the first time since 1968.

As part of President Joe Biden’s $2-trillion plan to upgrade the country’s struggling infrastructure network, $80 billion would go to Amtrak, the country’s largest passenger railroad company. 

On Thursday, a day after Biden’s announcement, the federally owned for-profit company published its 2035 Vision that would add 30 routes, linking 160 additional towns and cities while increasing the frequency of trips on existing routes. Included on its proposed map is a route from Raleigh to Wilmington.

Although the plan has a long way to go before receiving approval by Congress, Wilmington leaders — including Abby Lorenzo, deputy director for the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO) — feel the announcement is a significant step toward their vision of bringing rail passengers back to the city.

“I think we’re all kind of waiting to see what happens next, but it is exciting,” Lorenzo said Monday afternoon.

After the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad was completed in 1840, the passenger line into Union Station, at the corner of Front Street and Red Cross Street, helped contribute to the city’s growth in the latter portion of the 19th century. Later called the “Atlantic Coast Line Railroad,” it closed its headquarters in Wilmington in 1960, and by 1968 passenger rail service had ceased in downtown Wilmington, according to WMPO.

As part of a push to revitalize the Northside community, the city published its Comprehensive Greenway Plan, which identified potential greenway areas like the old rail line beneath Third and Fourth streets, curving north out of the city, for future biking and walking trails. In 2017, the city proposed a Gulch Greenway Plan for the old rail line, but the proposal “did not move beyond planning stages,” according to WMPO. Two years later, the Friends of Wilmington Rail Trail organized to push for the revitalization of the old rail bed.

RELATED: Infrastructure portion of Wilmington Rail Trail gets $5.4 million price tag, funding undetermined

Lorenzo said Amtrak’s announcement aligns with the WMPO’s vision to bring a passenger rail service back to the city. 

“There are still many details to work through. But the Wilmington MPO is excited and we’re supportive of the reestablishment of this service to Wilmington. . . . The discussion of bringing passenger rail service back to the Wilmington region has been around for quite some time,” Loreno said, noting that the conversation began sometime in the early 1990s.

A proposed Amtrak map shows a new passenger rail line between Raleigh and Wilmington. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Amtrak)

Mayor Bill Saffo told WECT News he was “ecstatic to hear that Amtrak feels that this is something they would like to see happen.”

“We’ve been definitely talking about this in the city of Wilmington for a number of years,” Saffo continued. “The city preserved, working with the Department of Transportation . . . in anticipation that one day we would have rail come back to the city of Wilmington.”

North Carolina Department of Transportation spokesperson Jamie Kritzer told WECT the state would keep tabs on the president’s proposal as it “makes its way through Congress.” According to Lorenzo, the NCDOT maintains ownership of the so-called Gulch Corridor.

Amtrak CEO Bill Flynn said Biden’s infrastructure plan would be crucial in rebuilding and enhancing the Northeast Corridor (NEC) and the rest of the rail line’s network across the country. 

“The NEC’s many major tunnels and bridges — most of which are over a century old — must be replaced and upgraded to avoid devastating consequences for our transportation network and the country,” Flynn said on Wednesday. “In addition, Amtrak has a bold vision to bring energy-efficient, world-class intercity rail service to up to 160 new communities across the nation, as we also invest in our fleet and stations across the U.S.  With this federal investment, Amtrak will create jobs and improve equity across cities, regions, and the entire country — and we are ready to deliver.”

The proposed map also includes new lines connecting Atlanta to Charlotte, Asheville to Salisbury (which has an existing line from Charlotte to Greensboro), and from Raleigh north to Richmond, Virginia, or south to Wilmington.

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