2nd rail would improve capacity

A railroad project that would bring an additional track through Harrisburg has garnered support from town officials who say the project would improve transportation safety in the area.

The N.C. Department of Transportation plans to add a second track along a 12.2-mile stretch of the existing track, which runs parallel to N.C. 49 in Harrisburg.

The single-track stretch connects two areas with double tracks. Double tracks are laid to the north near Rocky River Road in Concord and to the south near Orr Road in Charlotte. The single-track stretch in the middle causes trains to jam up on either side along the corridor, which has the state's highest volume of train traffic.

The additional track will allow for more passenger and freight train traffic as well as accommodate trains traveling in opposite directions.

"It's the railroad equivalent of a highway widening project," said Jason Orthner, an engineering manager who works in design and construction with the N.C. DOT Rail Division.

Orthner said the project would not only improve the tracks' capacity to handle more traffic but would also modernize the corridor and improve safety for local drivers.

The project includes the closing of several grade crossings that require drivers to drive over railroad tracks and the construction of bridges to replace those crossings.

The Harrisburg Town Council will host a meeting Thursday at Hickory Ridge High School for DOT officials to present their latest proposals for the project.

One of the planned railroad crossings is at Shamrock Road in Harrisburg.

Council members expressed concern about closing the crossing, arguing that cutting off access to N.C. 49 would increase industrial truck traffic on Shamrock Road, a residential area.

They said trucks from JHE Production Group and Saddle Creek Corp., off N.C. 49, will be forced to travel on Shamrock Road rather than quickly cross over to N.C. 49.

Councilwoman Rhonda Poppen also pointed to the extra time emergency services and fire prevention crews would need to reach the area. Chemical Specialties, which produces mineral chemicals, is nearby on Pharr Mill Road.

Council members said they tried to find alternatives to closing the Shamrock Road crossing, but neither they nor DOT planners have found a solution.

"There's just not a good solution to that problem," said Councilman Bill Williams.

About 5,000 cars use Shamrock Road each day as a cut-through, and about 10 percent of those are industrial trucks, said Marc Hamel, a rail environmental engineer with the N.C. DOT.

By closing the crossing, traffic could drop to about 1,500 a day, he said. "If I lived there, I'd prefer it to be closed," said Hamel.

Adding an additional track and keeping the crossing open would be too dangerous for drivers, said Hamel.

The DOT has proposed closing that crossing, as well as the crossing at Pharr Mill Road, and building a bridge that would replace the two crossings. The bridge would line up with Blackwelder Road and cross over N.C. 49 with an interchange ramp that would allow traffic to access the highway.

DOT officials have also proposed closing the crossing at Robinson Church Road and building a bridge north of Hickory Ridge Road, providing an alternative route that would line up with Roberta Road.

Another proposal includes keeping the crossing on Robinson Church Road and making safety improvements at the crossing.

Council members agreed that they supported the overall project, noting that children on school buses would be safer by not having to cross railroads and that there would be less noise because there would be less crossings requiring trains to blow their whistles.

At the council's June 14 meeting, council members unanimously voted to approve a resolution supporting the rail project provided that the DOT includes five elements in the project.

Council members want three bridges built to replace closed crossings, and they also want the town be granted land near Blackwelder Road for use as an emergency management facility.

They also want the DOT to design new roads to support current and future traffic volumes, as well as an overall traffic pattern that will focus traffic around the Town Center, which officials hope to make the symbolic center of town

Construction of bridges, which would begin before railroad crossings are closed, could begin in late 2012, said Orthner.