Freight traffic in Wilmington will likely increase due to the new Vertex Rail and wood pellet industries. And the city’s population is expected to grow by over 50% in the next 25 years. This creates safety and traffic issues, which the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County are attempting to address. Instead of slowly winding through the city, officials envision a new route cutting across the Cape Fear River directly to the Port.
When first constructed, the CSX rail line encircled the edges of Wilmington. However, the city has grown, and there are now at least 31 railroad crossings, with hundreds of thousands of cars passing over them each day. This creates a safety issue, which will only increase as freight traffic and population rise, causing more interactions and conflicts between cars and the trains.
Currently, CSX is addressing these liability issues with a traffic separation study, which will identify rail road crossings that could be eliminated. However, Councilwoman Laura Padgett says she fears CSX will choose to solve these redundant crossings by closing roads:
"When you close a rail crossing, you cut a road in half. And so there are going to be areas of the city where people are used to and need to cross those rail lines in order to get where they’re going. I don’t know which crossings they’re going to consider, but I’m guessing that, one way or another, they will cut off access to areas of the city in order to create those closings."
Within the past month, both the City of Wilmington and New Hanover County have requested that the North Carolina Department of Transportation, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, and CSX come together to conduct a feasibility study. The evaluation would assess the possibility of rerouting the current CSX rail line.
Glenn Harbeck, Wilmington’s Director of Planning, Development, and Transportation, says that, besides relieving safety concerns, moving the railroad outside of the city would improve quality of life:
"Residents of our city are complaining about the heavy rail that goes through the city, blowing horns, often times in the middle of the night. That’s not an indictment of the rail; that’s just the way it is. They have to blow their horns for safety reasons."
And beyond the noise, the railroads create a serious traffic design issue. Many times, the rail lines get in the way of potential new roads or improvements to travel routes. And working around the tracks adds substantial costs.
One such roadblock is actually what spurred the proposal to move the rail line. The city has needed a North-South travel route for decades, and the ideal spot is from Independence Blvd to Martin Luther King Parkway. Yet the rail line crosses Independence twice. In order to avoid the intersection between train and vehicle traffic, the Independence Blvd extension would have to be built on an elevated berm, which adds tens of millions of dollars to the project’s costs.
Director Harbeck says that, though moving the rail line would be expensive, it would remove many future conflicts and costs:
"That is the purpose of the feasibility study: to look at the costs and benefits, hopefully from a broad range of issues, not just the actual cost of relocating the rail line, but also quality of life issues in the city and savings and not having to build our roads in certain ways if we didn’t have to go over the rail."
If the rail line were to be moved, almost all rail crossings in Wilmington would be eliminated, though some would remain near the Port. Councilwoman Padgett says this project would be transformative for the city, and she foresees redevelopment opportunities on abandoned CSX tracks:
"We could do any number of things. We could create trails. We could create biking, walking—we could put various facilities that would enhance that. We could put some type of trolley. We could put a raised personal rapid transit facility that would have different stops along the way. We could, we could make this a city that really looks further into the 21st century and puts us on the map."
Making a change this large takes time. Once the MPO, DOT, and CSX take on the feasibility study, Councilwoman Padgett estimates that it will take 18 months to complete it, and Director Harbeck says it may be 10-20 years before such a project could come to fruition.
A CSX spokesperson says that the costs of relocating the rail line would make the project unworkable. Further, as a publicly-traded company, they cannot fund public projects that do not directly support their business.