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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Federal rail grants posted this November, NC leaders support Raleigh to Wilmington corridor

In March, the North Carolina Department of Transportation submitted 12 new corridor proposals to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Corridor Identification and Development Program, including 134-mile route from Wilmington to Raleigh. (Port City Daily/Brenna Flanagan)

WILMINGTON — State and federal leaders are optimistic a proposed passenger rail corridor from Wilmington to Raleigh will gain federal funding when grants are announced in two months.

READ MORE: Passenger rail from Wilmington to Raleigh takes another step forward, federal funding available

In March, the North Carolina Department of Transportation submitted 12 new corridor proposals to the Federal Railroad Administration’s Corridor Identification and Development Program. The initiative was created through the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to develop a pipeline of intercity passenger rail routes for implementation. 

“We have a high degree of confidence we’re going to win most of the corridors, if not all the corridors that we’ve applied for,” NCDOT Rail Division Director Jason Orthner said in a convening of the North Carolina Metro Mayors Coalition at City of Wilmington’s new headquarters in the former Thermo Fisher building.

Among those submitted is a 134-mile route running from Wilmington through Wallace, Warsaw, Goldsboro, Selma and Clayton into Raleigh. 

In one of five meetings to be held across the state, the North Carolina Metro Mayors Coalition and other stakeholders updated community members Thursday on the coalition’s rail response work group’s effort to secure funding for the corridor. 

The proposed Wilmington to Raleigh passenger rail corridor. (NCDOT)

The group reported several takeaways — the importance of grassroots organization and mayoral alliances to demonstrate common interest for identified corridors, plus open communication between communities and constituents. The members also stated the need for dedicated funding from the state government to boost the state’s competitiveness.  

The Corridor ID program offers $500,000 to selected routes for scoping, scheduling and cost estimates. Subsequent funding for a site development plan requires a 10% state or local match, and the project development phase requires a 20% match.

The other 11 routes submitted by NCDOT include: 

  • Charlotte to D.C. 
  • Atlanta to Charlotte 
  • Asheville to Salisbury
  • Fayetteville to Raleigh 
  • Charlotte to Kings Mountain 
  • Greenville to Raleigh
  • Hamlet to Raleigh 
  • Weldon to Raleigh 
  • Winston-Salem to Raleigh
  • Morehead City to Raleigh
  • Charlotte to Winston-Salem

NCDOT is partnering with Amtrak, charged with operating the corridors. Currently, the closest Amtrak station to Wilmington is in Fayetteville.  

According to Nicole Bucich, vice president for network development at Amtrak, the company has the financial assistance to help corridors initiate service and the ability to run demonstration trains to help build support. Partnering with Amtrak also comes with passenger connections to its existing network of state-supported and long-distance routes, Bucich added. 

“What makes [the Wilmington to Raleigh] route particularly interesting and also very promising, from my perspective, is that the right-of-way is sort of a mix between CSX- owned and state-owned or state-owned and leased,” Bucich said. “As you go through the service development planning process and those conversations that have to do with the host partners, that sort of gives you a jumpstart in advancing this corridor.” 

The route connects the larger markets of Raleigh and Wilmington; the state capital is a major hub for employers. It also serves as an important connector to other transit, including bus stations and airports. At Raleigh Union Station, passengers can transfer to Amtrak service that travels west to Charlotte or north to Washington, D.C. using the existing Piedmont or Carolinian routes. 

“We have to think about alternative methods of transportation to ensure that we continue to be attractive to the people who are moving here, the people we need to move here to fill the jobs that we are creating,” Wilmington Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Natalie English said during the meeting. 

The corridor can service student travel to school and home, as the route has numerous universities and colleges located on either end. It could also provide an alternative for officer and troop travel to and from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro. 

The route can connect people to health care services, sporting events, cultural activities and vacation spots — particularly Wilmington beaches. While the travel may not be faster than driving (estimates show a 35-minute difference between train and car), Bucich pointed out there are benefits to traveling by rail. 

Riding time can be spent on productive activities rather than driving. Plus, the train is more energy efficient and relieves congestion on the state’s increasingly busy highways.

According to NCDOT’s federally funded feasibility study on the route, the introduction of passenger rail service to the area could provide reliable transportation to groups more reliant on public transportation. 

The study shows that within the Wilmington to Raleigh Corridor, about 45% of the population are minorities and 2.7% live without a personal vehicle. Around 12% of people within 5 miles have a disability and 15% live below the poverty line. Approximately 21% of the population is under 18 years old and 13% is over the age of 65, making approximately 34% more likely to be dependent on public transportation, according to the study.

Nick Tennyson, co-chair of the mayor’s workgroup, pointed out the importance of extending public transport beyond intercity rail. 

“It is not sufficient for a train to stop and discharge or pick up passengers when it’s impossible to get to or from the station,” Tennyson said in the meeting. “We need to make sure that we’re helping our communities by thinking about our pedestrian access, or other modes of access, and all the other ways that we can strengthen the ability of passenger rail  to strengthen our community.”

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo concurred when talking with Port City Daily after the meeting. He discussed the importance of making the city’s bus service, Wave Transit, is more conducive to people’s schedules.

“Reducing wait times from 30 to 15 minutes — a lot of customers tell us that they have to wait too long,” Saffo said. “And making it much more available to people, not only here in Wilmington, but also to the surrounding areas like Brunswick County where possible.” 

Also crucial to future rail service — accommodating day-trippers as they try to get to the beach. 

“[They can take] taxis, Uber, bus, possibly, but you know, that’s another opportunity there to make sure that you have,” Saffo added, “a connection from the multi-modal center to the areas where people have visited before — that has to be part of the overarching plan.”

The Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is renovating 525 N. Fourth St. in the Brooklyn Arts District, near Edward Teach Brewery, to be a multi-modal center and its new home offices. The building is intended to serve as the city’s transportation hub, with improved facilities and convenience for public transportation users. 

It would combine Wave Transit, the downtown trolley and inter-city buses, as well as future passenger rail. However, there is currently no direct connection between the facility and proposed passenger rail to Raleigh. 

Also on the WMPO and city docket is the Wilmington Downtown Rail Trail, with the initial phase to convert the abandoned rail corridor from downtown to the Love Grove community, near Screen Gems Studios, as a 1.7-mile multi-use path.

The end goal is to implement passenger rail along a portion of the same corridor — Third to Eighth streets — which used to connect Wilmington to the East Coast via Atlantic Coast Line Railroad before closing more than 50 years ago. 

If NCDOT is awarded the federal money for the Wilmington to Raleigh passenger rail corridor, the project will move into the initial scoping phase, where an exact route, schedule and costs will be determined. 

The 2015 North Carolina State Comprehensive Rail Plan included the corridor as part of its vision and estimated at full build, for it to have a ridership of 37,000 in 2025 and 50,100 in 2040 with Southeast Corridor, Southeastern NC (SENC) and Western NC (WNC) services. Ticket revenues were anticipated to be $665,000 in 2025 and $927,000 in 2040 per a 2005 study, but those numbers would be updated per the federal green light.

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