WILMINGTON — The city’s ambitious rail-realignment plan continues to inch forward. This month, the city requested proposals for environmental consultants and will accept $2.5 million in grants to fund them; meanwhile, the state released options to replace the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, one of which includes railway capacity — a crucial part of the realignment plan.
The realignment plan includes two main portions: rerouting CSX freight trains onto the west side of the Cape Fear River and repurposing the current CSX lines, which cut a horseshoe path through Wilmington, as light passenger rail.
The project could cost a billion dollars or more, but support has been growing from a variety of stakeholders, including the federal government, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), and even CSX itself — signaling a new direction for the rail company which, previously, had been standoffish.
Grant funding, consultant sought
Last June, the city received a $2 million grant from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) for grant funding from the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grant program to support further preliminary engineering and environmental studies required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
In October, NCDOT agreed to $500,000 in matching funds over two years to help support studies required by NEPA.
On Tuesday, City Council will vote to approve entering into agreements with both the FRA and NCDOT to accept this funding and appropriate it for environmental and historic preservation studies as required by federal law.
Last week, the city posted a request for proposals (technically, a ‘Request for Letters of Interest and Qualifications,’ RFLOI&Q). The city is seeking a consultant to provide environmental and engineering services, which may include professional engineering designs and drawings, according to the city’s request.
A rail bridge?
One of the sticking points for the rail realignment project has been the potential cost of a rail bridge.
Currently, CSX freight lines travel across the Cape Fear River north of Wilmington, loop around through the city, and then enters the Port of Wilmington. In order to free up the rail lines in Wilmington — creating the possibility of light passenger rail, and reducing traffic caused at rail intersections — the rail line has to be brought to the port another way.
While the cost of a standalone rail-bridge would considerably increase the cost of the realignment project, advocates for the project noted that tying the fate of rail realignment to another NCDOT or federal transportation project was a risky move.
In 2017, Laura Padgett, then-head of the city’s task force on rail realignment said tying rail relocation to another project – like the Cape Fear Crossing – would “significantly slow it down, or just plain kill it.” Those words have particular resonance now, after the NCDOT killed the Cape Fear Crossing late last year.
However, NCDOT also recently released preliminary conceptual plans for a replacement for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. While only one of the four proposed plans contains a rail component, it still represents another potential move forward for realignment.
NCDOT’ Division 3 Engineer Chad Kimes acknowledged that such a project would be tricky.
“Few structures in the world have it,” he said. The weight of a train versus vehicular traffic is a concern, he said, but is an option being considered because the department realizes how important it could be for Wilmington. “If you can do it with one bridge, the better off we all would be.”