Residents, council against rail upgrades

Harrisburg residents and Town Council members are planning to fight future railroad upgrades planned by the N.C. Department of Transportation.

The current plan, known as the Haydock-to-Junker project, would make upgrades including construction of a second track alongside a 12-mile stretch that runs parallel to N.C. 49; and closure of multiple railroad crossings in Harrisburg to accommodate high-speed rail and protect against train-auto accidents.

It's part of a federally funded $545 million Piedmont rail modernization program, which also includes upgrades to 28 miles of track between Charlotte and Greensboro.

Dozens of people attended the town council's Jan. 28 planning workshop to voice concerns after learning the state's Piedmont regional transportation director would be there to discuss the project.

Residents and council members said the proposed changes would hurt the town's economic development, increase traffic congestion, displace several people who live in historic homes and lengthen response times for emergency vehicles.

Council member Phil Cowherd proposed budgeting $50,000 to protect the town from the project's potential negative effects.

Cowherd, who served on the council 1999-2009 and took office again in December, said the money could be used to generate support through advertisements, for legal fees or for hiring consultants to work with NCDOT and other state and local officials. That proposal is on the agenda for the council's Feb. 13 meeting.

NCDOT Rail Division officials said they are carefully digesting community input from three recent informational meetings. That input will be included in an ongoing dialogue among the several agencies charged with making sure that rail projects are fair, environmentally conscious, equitable and legal.

"We are listening," said Patrick Simmons, director of the Rail Division. "We've cast our net, listened and made recommendations based on what we heard."

The project outline includes traffic and environmental studies, recent public feedback and ways to mitigate residents' concerns. It still has to be reviewed by a multi-disciplinary team of federal, state and local agencies before getting final approval. Construction could begin as soon as 2013.

"We are at the 25 percent level of design, and that, too, will progress as we continue working with communities, the railroads and state and federal agencies," said Simmons. "It is critical that we stage construction and begin with the highways and bridges, then the railroad."

Residents say proposed closings of rail crossings, including those at Robinson Church, and Hickory Ridge, would send more traffic onto Stallings Road, Tom Query Road and Shamrock Drive. The change in traffic patterns also could change local shopping habits and hurt Harrisburg businesses, opponents said.

Rail Division officials said the highly traveled roads that residents are concerned about already have a hard time accommodating traffic. Marc Hamel, environmental project manager with the Rail Division for more than 20 years, said the projects are a good step forward in modernizing the railroad and the community.

"Traffic is already terrible where they are, and they don't understand how these projects will make things better," he said. "I know folks look at it like we're closing down roads and cutting off access, but what we're really doing is replacing an at-grade road that eventually would become dysfunctional."

According to DOT's traffic impact analysis, the upgrades not only will be adequate but will make it possible to add more lanes to roads in the future. Officials added that the upgrades will handle Harrisburg's projected traffic levels into 2035.

Because the state is seeing historic rates of growth, Simmons said, it's highly unlikely the roads will remain open.

"It's inevitable," he said. "The roads eventually would have to be closed, whether we do something or not. This project ensures safety and long-term mobility."

About 40 trains per day pass through Harrisburg. That number is projected to exceed 80 trains per day by 2035, said Simmons. Since mid-1990s, the Rail Division has closed 180 crossings statewide, and those towns have not been harmed, said Simmons.

"We know if we put rail line in there, it improves safety, it improves mobility and it eliminates (auto-train) conflicts by building bridges," said Simmons. "Harrisburg is growing, our state is growing, and the whole region is growing. We'll add 42 percent more traffic between now and 2020.

"At 80 trains per day, with most running during daylight hours, Harrisburg will have a train going through every 10 to 15 minutes. What we're able visualize is how many trains are coming, and the average citizen doesn't know that information. Without the bridges, it'd be very difficult to reliably get across the railroad tracks."

The formula is simple, he said: More cars plus more trains equals more potential conflicts.

Still, council members and residents said they didn't think they were being heard.

"The informational meetings have just been that," said newly elected council member Brian Leepard. "The town has had some discussion with NCDOT and the rail, and I think the previous council picked what they felt to be the best of the worse-case scenario. However, what we're finding out now is that as more people... find out about this, the more they are realizing this is totally unacceptable.

"The amount of traffic that is on those roads ... will not fit onto a two-lane road. I don't care what engineer says it will. They do not live here; they do not understand the capacities that we have."

Cowherd said the benefits, if any, are more regionally focused, and the changes will divide the community, overburden roads and harm residents' quality of life.

"We're not getting any benefit," said Cowherd. "It's all negative. What we need is to be made whole. We need to be satisfied."

Leepard agreed.

"Our job is to look out for the benefits of Harrisburg," said Leepard. "With this project, there are none. The only thing this does is hurt us. It hurts our business, it makes it harder to commute, and it just splits the whole town in half.

"We are charged with making this thing better for Harrisburg, and that's what we will try and fight to do."

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