University City

A tale of two rails

Like two heavily loaded freight trains barreling straight toward one another, the N.C. Department of Transportation's Rail Division appears to be on a collision course with University City residents who oppose track improvements for high-speed rail.

Harrisburg Town Council member Phil Cowherd is leading efforts to derail NCDOT's plan. Recent news reports have focused on the plight of Harrisburg residents who would lose their homes to railroad construction, such as 94-year-old veteran Ira Lee Taylor.

Meanwhile, NCDOT is working feverishly against time to finish a massive statewide rail project before a Dec. 31, 2016, deadline. In 2010, the Federal Government approved $545 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for rail improvements in North Carolina. If NCDOT misses the deadline, the state may be stuck with the bill for the track improvements.

Though not directly involved, the Obama administration also appears to have a stake in the outcome.

The President supports high-speed rail, and earlier this month, his administration proposed a six-year, $53 billion plan to expand high-speed passenger rail service.

The White House has included $8 billion for high-speed rail in its 2012 budget.

Backers of high-speed rail say it will bring fast and convenient passenger train service from Charlotte to Raleigh, Richmond, and Washington, D.C.

The track improvements will also open the way for expanded freight service.

According to NCDOT Engineer Jason Orthner, the N.C. Railroad corridor between Charlotte and Greensboro is already the most heavily used rail line in the state, with 40 freight trains and eight Amtrak passenger trains per day.

The 12-mile University City project will install a second set of rails, so trains can pass each other safely, and will upgrade the track to allow trains to reach speeds of 90 miles per hour or more.

The project begins near Orr Road and ends north of central Harrisburg off N.C. 49.

NCDOT refers to it as "Junker-Haydock," using old railroad names for track locations. It will cost more than $95 million.

Orthner said high-speed rail projects are like interstate highways.

To work safely and efficiently, modern railroads require separation from cross traffic and track design that allows consistently high train speeds.

In Harrisburg in 2009, an Amtrak train plowed into a tractor-trailer crossing the tracks at Pharr Mill Road, and in 2010, a chemical truck narrowly missed collision with a train at Orr Road in Charlotte, according to NCDOT. Both these grade crossings would be closed as part of the project.

NCDOT appears to have made a good-faith effort to work with Charlotte officials, holding meetings and even a bus trip in November 2010 to visit potential rail project locations.

Tim Gibbs of the Charlotte Department of Transportation worked with Orthner to coordinate the bus tour. Gibbs said the two sides are still seeking common ground on a number of issues.

One point of contention is whether to close the rail crossing at Orr Road. That decision is tied to a related proposal to extend Orr Road to connect with Eastway Drive.

The city also wants to discuss including safe bike and pedestrian paths across the tracks, adding bike lanes and sidewalks along Old Concord Road, and replacing the Back Creek Church rail crossing with a bridge or underpass, possibly at Mallard Creek Church Road.

One other agency, N.C. Rail Roads, is also involved.

A private company owned by the state of North Carolina, NCRR controls the property within the 200-foot track corridor, an arrangement that originated in the 1800s.

Although NCDOT has indicated openness to bike and pedestrian projects along the tracks, NCRR has vetoed such projects in the past. Even though it is not directly involved in construction or planning, Gibbs said, NCRR has enormous influence: "NCDOT trumps us, but NCRR trumps NCDOT and everyone else."

Some Charlotte residents voice concerns similar to those in Harrisburg. They also complain that NCDOT did not adequately inform them about public meetings to discuss the plan's effects.

A citizen leader in Newell, who asked not to be named, is deeply concerned about a proposed bridge across the tracks linking Grier Road with Old Concord Road. She is worried about environmental effects as well as increased traffic on Old Concord Road.

"They have to raise Old Concord Road 30 feet, which will block access to one of our last working farms and affect houses on either side," she said.

NCDOT closed the public comment period for the Junker-Haydock project on Jan. 15.

The project, however, has not yet received the required "Finding of No Significant Impact" (known as a FONSI) from the Federal Railroad Authority.

Though the clock keeps ticking and some residents are strongly opposed, NCDOT still hopes to keep the high-speed rail project on track.

Orthner hopes to see bridges built by the spring of 2013 - just a year away - followed by laying track and making line improvements before the 2016 deadline.