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Public Comment Sought On NC Rail Plan

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The over 3,000 miles of rail in the Tarheel state continues to be critical in serving local industry and consumers.  In December, the draft Comprehensive State Rail Plan was released for public review, part of a 25 year improvement plan.  Sarah Finch reports on one facet of that plan that may bolster the economy, and how increasing passenger rail ridership may expand our options over the next 2 decades.

From rail to rail, trains move through 86 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. A 25 year plan has been laid out for public review on how rail expansion will benefit the state and its residents. Deputy Secretary of Transit Jeff Mann, says this plan is ultimately important for state economic growth.

“Having a State Rail Plan guides our investments going forward for the next 25 years. And I think it is absolutely critical that we have a plan to guide our vision, with regard to rail investments.”

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One intriguing  suggestion in the new rail plan is what’s called an Intermodal Facility which supporters say would help move goods from North Carolina through the country and ultimately to international markets.  An Intermodal Facility would handle the shipping containers you’re familiar with from trains, ships, and trucks.  The facility would enable the transport of containers without any actual handling of the freight as it travels through those various modes of transportation.  NCDOT Rail Director Paul Worley,

In this day and age of containers, we make product and we put that in a container, and we ship it out, just like we receive product in a container and use it as a consumer.”

Worley says Intermodal Facilities would reduce cargo handling costs, improve security, reduce damage and loss, and allow freight to be transported faster.  These new sites would likely be built along the I-95 corridor in eastern North Carolina to support the Triangle and minimize the impacts of highway congestion on the Charlotte and Greensboro terminals.

These facilities connect ports with people and people with ports and other countries. So the traffic goes both ways and there is great potential and growth that comes with them.

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Intermodal facilities would provide a competitive advantage for existing and future businesses in eastern NC, in areas such as agriculture, food and manufacturing. Intermodal shipping containers move all sorts of products from Amazon packages to electronics like computers, TVs and iPhones.  This containerized cargo would arrive at the Intermodal site, a large tract of land with railway and highway access. Tall straddle carriers would lift the 40 foot containers off trucks and trains, before moving them to a holding area. This will allow shipments to travel long distances by rail, and shorter distances by truck.

The final cost and location of these projects is dependent upon a railroad company making a large investment and partnering with the State. North Carolina has recently secured funding and built one of these sites in the western part of the state. The Charlotte Regional Intermodal Facility broke ground in 2012 at a cost of $92-million dollars. Completed in 2013, it greatly expands their ability to handle intermodal traffic and move more freight off the nation’s overburdened highway system and onto rail.  The draft Rail Plan also identifies key studies to be carried out across the state.

“At the Morehead City Port, we have been looking a great deal at the connections between the Global Transpark in Kinston and Morehead City, looking at ways that we can improve that rail line, where are opportunities to provide track on new location, bypasses for congested areas and how we can make the railroad more efficient where it lies today.”

Three specific coastal evaluations include possible relocation of the NC Railroad from the Port of Morehead City to Havelock, developing a rail bypass of New Bern from the Kinston Global Transpark to Morehead City and reducing highway railroad conflicts in Morehead City.

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Worley says the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Port of Wilmington are already exploring options for new rail access such as a new bridge spanning the Cape Fear River.

We believe that our ports have great potential, what is lacking is land side access and our long term plans, both the Governor’s vision and the rail plans, seek to improve that.”

Proposed developments at the Port of Wilmington are estimated at $50 million dollars. Bridge infrastructure to facilitate a roadway and a railroad at different elevations, is called a Grade Separation. This improvement applies to both the Port’s North Gate and the Container Gate.

The draft plan also explores expanding access to passenger rail service for people in all regions. Citing a more than 200 percent increase in North Carolina passenger rail ridership between 2003 and 2013, the draft calls for improved facilities and services on existing Amtrak routes and stations, including those that serve eastern North Carolina.

So there are two initiatives that are very important to that, one is connecting Raleigh with Richmond over the southeast quarter, restoring that rail line back and opening up better access to the northeast.”

In the past, NCDOT has focused on developing reliable service between Raleigh, Greensboro, and Charlotte, what they call the Piedmont Quarter. The new draft Rail Plan recommends expanding Amtrak Thruway Bus service to more markets.  Of course, bus service to the train station is not the ideal for passenger rail service, but it’s a start. The Rail Plan outlines a vision to provide a system of intercity passenger services connecting North Carolina's major metropolitan areas and other communities to destinations within the state and along the East Coast. Scheduled for completion by 2035, additional passenger lines would travel from Greensboro to DC via Lynchburg, VA, from Raleigh to Hampton Roads, Charlotte to Wilmington, Raleigh to Greenville and finally from Raleigh to Morehead City. Estimated total cost for these new routes is currently at $4 billion dollars.

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To review the draft Rail Plan or make a comment visit:  ncbytrain.org. The public comment period is going on now through March 21st.

“Well we would take into consideration all of our public comments, that’s very important to us to get that information and look through it. Very often we get information from the public that we have not encountered ourselves. After we consider that, we’ll make the necessary revisions to the document and then issue the final Rail Plan.”

After the public comment period NCDOT will review all comments, and make any necessary revisions based on cost, need and benefit to the community.  Improvements will scored through the Statewide Strategic Transportation Investments Program and selected based on merit through the Freight Rail and Rail Crossing Safety Improvement Program. The department anticipates final approval of the plan in June 2015.  For Public Radio East, I’m Sarah Finch.