WILMINGTON — After years of weighing different maps, a new route has been selected to replace Wilmington’s current rail line.
Last week Wilmington City Council passed a resolution in support of “Alternative 2,” the preferred course out of six total alternatives and a shortlist of two frontrunners. A Rail Realignment Alternatives Analysis was conducted to study the potential routes and reach the consensus.
The extensive and potentially billion-dollar project to realign the freight route in Wilmington has been in the works since 2014. The goal is to relocate the line out of the way of bustling traffic in the city, with intersections currently posing safety risks and obstacles for growth. The new course should also provide more direct access for rail.
“Alternative 2” starts by tying into the Wilmington Terminal Railroad line at Greenfield Street. Tracks will move down the west side of South Front Street, before crossing a bridge over the Cape Fear River, then curves to pass over the highway interchange and continue north through the western leg of the river.
Heading parallel to U.S. 421, the path eventually connects to the existing CSX Transportation line, approximately 0.4 miles west of the highway, and moves west to its destination: the Davis Yard.
Aubrey Parsley, the city-hired director of rail realignment, noted in a presentation to council last week the route is ideal because it never traverses South Front Street, which is better for mobility goals and public safety. Alternative 2 only intersects with one road –– Dawson Street –– compared to the 32 at-grade crossings that now exist, two of which are private.
The second alternative also makes use of an out-of-service railbed on Eagles Island, built in the late 1800s and unutilized for at least a century. There is no visible rail infrastructure, however, it is situated on elevated ground, meaning reconstructing tracks on the bed would limit disturbances to water and natural resources compared to other routes that were examined.
Overall, Alternative 2 is also considered the option that is the minimal threat to coastal wetlands and conservation lands. Plus, it is not expected to conflict with a future fly-over and free-flow ramp at the highway interchange, a plan known as the “Isabel Holmes Bridge Flyovers Project.”
It’s taken over four years of studies to reach this point in the project. Now there is a 200-foot corridor to focus on. The City of Wilmington is continuing to coordinate with the Federal Railroad Administration to refine the route. An environmental assessment must be completed to determine the significance of the impacts, and since the project is funded by federal dollars and requires federal permitting, it must meet the standards of the National Environmental Policy Act.
At this point, environmental review work has been underway for 18 months and is expected to proceed for another 12 months.
Fifteen percent of the engineering work on the rail realignment project was completed as of this past June. The city intends to reach the 30% engineering milestone within the next 18 months, by 2023. A final design and construction start date are still years off, undeterminable as it stands.
Before the NEPA review process wraps, the public will once again receive an opportunity to offer feedback on the environmental impact findings during a mandatory 30-day public comment period this summer.
For early next year, the city is planning to host up to six events targeting traditionally underserved areas, particularly near the rail line.
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