If you drive along Old Concord Road between Orr Road and University City Boulevard, you undoubtedly have seen a lot of trees torn down next to the railroad tracks.
Trying to find out why the trees were down seemed an easy topic to explore.
After many calls to several agencies, organizations and individuals, I have learned the trees are down in preparation for a double track to be installed. The work is part of the Piedmont Improvement Program ( www.ncdot.gov/projects/pip).
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Julia Casadonte, communications officer for the N.C. Department of Transportation, said, “This specific section of work involves constructing approximately 12 miles of second track and realigning curves along the North Carolina Railroad corridor in Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties.
“The tree clearing is expected to occur southwest of Orr Road, which is the southern limit of the project.
“The tree clearing is being done in preparation for roadbed grading to add the second track,” said Casadonte.
The purpose of the project is to increase railroad capacity and improve efficiency and safety along the route between Charlotte and Raleigh, according to N.C. DOT’s website.
But the project raises questions for Greg Phipps, the new District 4 City Council member.
“I’m concerned about the increased volume of trains coming through the University City area. You can only imagine what it will sound like,” Phipps said. He said he already has received calls from residents complaining about the noise.
“It also concerns me about the types of hazardous materials being carried along the track and how double tracks might affect the response time for emergency vehicles,” Phipps said.
He said there have been incidents of people trespassing and going around the gate arm of the tracks, and there have been a few incidents of “suicide by train.”
Capt. Mark Basnight, public information officer with the Charlotte Fire Department, said he does not share those concerns.
“We have dealt with double tracks and have not had a problem. We can make access from either side of the tracks,” Basnight said. “We have had some of the best training to respond to hazardous material incidents on the rail.”
According to the N.C. DOT website, about 30 freight trains and eight passenger trains travel through the Norfolk Southern rail corridor, considered one of the busiest in North Carolina.
After several attempts to reach Norfolk Southern, there was no response to questions about specific hazardous materials carried on the freight trains traveling through University City.
“Hydrochloric acid is one of the hazardous materials I have seen on railcars passing along the track,” Phipps said.
Phipps also is president of the Back Creek II Homeowners Association, and since 2009 he has served on the city’s Planning Commission.
“I have received persistent community complaints about trains blowing their horn at all hours of the night. Clearance of the natural tree buffer along the rail line will only exacerbate the problem,” Phipps said.
However, he said, “There is no indication that Norfolk Southern has violated any tree-save requirements.”
To help with the noise problem, Phipps said he plans to investigate whether the University City area can be eligible for a Quiet Zone Project. That designation could help secure funding to reduce noise from the dual tracks.
Casadonte said, “Our engineers don’t believe the trees have anything to do with a quiet zone, other than possible sight lines down the track. The kind of treatments at the crossing determine the eligibility for a quiet zone (medians, gate arms, signals and so on).
“The municipality would have to request a quiet zone through the Federal Railroad Administration.”
After learning about why the trees are down, residents have been left still wondering about the future.
Phipps said he plans to address concerns of University City residents and others in District 4.
The Piedmont Improvement Program is expected to be complete near the end of 2016.