The extension of Independence Boulevard has been a high priority project since the 1960s. But finding a way to gather funding—while also keeping it in line with federal guidelines, making sure it fits within the Wilmington community, and working around the CSX rail lines—has been a roadblock to the project.
Federal funding for transportation improvements comes with a lot of strings—environmental, social, and more. And since the purpose of extending Independence Boulevard is to relieve congestion, one requirement for federal funding is setting the road’s speed limit at 55 miles per hour. However, Wilmington City Councilwoman Laura Padgett doesn’t believe such a high speed road would fit with Wilmington’s historic feel:
"It’s my opinion that we don’t have to move traffic 55 mph if, as a community, we don’t want people moving at 55 mph through the city. Once you get in city limits, there are things to see, stops to be made, errands to be run. We don’t want to encourage people to think that they should drive 55 mph in the city limits. If they want to go that fast, then they are transiting, and they can take other ways around."
Yet, if the city decided to keep a lower speed limit, they would lose the possibility of federal funding. And since the project is currently projected to cost 154 million dollars, it’s too pricey for regional or division funding levels.
Padgett says that the costs of the project could be cut in half if the road did not have to be elevated on a berm in order to avoid an intersection with the CSX rail road tracks.
But in order to remove the necessity for the berm, the CSX rail line would have to be relocated. This idea has spurred Wilmington City Council, New Hanover County commissioners, the regional Transportation Advisory Committee, and the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce to action. In the past month, all four groups have called for a feasibility study to evaluate the costs and benefits of moving the CSX rail line across the river. The relocation would connect the rail more directly to the Port and eliminate the need for the trains to wind through the city.
CSX spokesperson Kristen Seay says that, while it is the company’s objective to reduce road crossings, relocating the rail line would be too expensive:
"We’re working closely with the city and the state to determine the most feasible solution for the Wilmington area. We do not believe that moving the rail line is the most feasible solution for several reasons. You have to keep in mind that it costs between 1.5 and 2 million dollars to lay track per mile. So, that’s very, very costly."
Glenn Harbeck is the Director of Planning, Development, and Transportation for the City of Wilmington. He says numerous groups could stand to benefit from such a project, and that they could be called upon for funding:
"It would have benefits to the state of North Carolina as a whole in terms promoting economic development in inland areas that would have improved rail access to our ports. It would certainly benefit our own state ports, making them more attractive as a port of entry and port of sending out materials. I would think it would have benefit to CSX rail road in eliminating the liability that they face with all the street crossings in the city. It would certainly have benefits to the city of Wilmington and New Hanover County."
Part of the feasibility study would be to identify funding partners and bring them together.
If the rail were moved, it would open up opportunities to expand roads throughout the city. Padgett says that good transportation planning doesn’t just add lanes—it spreads traffic and provides different routes so that people have more choices. Padgett has ideas for increasing North-South traffic options that would complement widening Independence Boulevard to four lanes:
"We need to take some of the planning pressure, the congestion pressure off of it and extend and widen Kerr Avenue. We need to look at other potential possibilities using 23rd, Princess Place; it might not be a straight shot, but it could be made to flow more smoothly. New Centre Drive has the potential to relieve some traffic North-South too."
Relocating the CSX rail line is currently not included in Governor Pat McCrory’s new transportation plan. However, Harbeck says that he doesn't think the North Carolina Department of Transportation was aware of such talks when planning the program, and the feasibility study may bring it to their attention.