07/12/05 — Working on a railroad: Recommendation is in

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Working on a railroad: Recommendation is in

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on July 12, 2005 1:45 PM

No passenger trains have pulled into Goldsboro's Union Station for nearly four decades, and none are expected for years to come.

But the possibility that the retired depot could again become a transportation hub had Goldsboro officials and businessmen celebrating Monday.

"This is one of the most exciting things that has happened since I've been here," Mayor Al King said. "This is just a first step, but I don't see why it won't happen."

"We need to throw a party," said Julie Thompson of the Downtown Goldsboro Development Commission.

Monday, N.C. Department of Transportation officials announced they want to restore passenger train service from Raleigh to Wilmington through Goldsboro. The project, which could cost as much as $190 million, would probably need a mix of federal and state funding.

DOT also endorsed an alternate route through Fayetteville, which could cost as much as $130 million in construction costs.

Transportation officials had been studying the two options since 2000 and had been expected to pick only one.

"It was an interesting competition," said Patrick Simmons, director of the N.C. Rail Division. "But there is no loser today. It's not either-or; it's both. ... They're both worth doing."

Or, as N.C. Rep. Louis Pate put it, "This watermelon is big enough to share."

The dead-heat finish was a tremendous victory for Goldsboro, considering how far it has come in four years, said Mayor King.

City officials and business leaders had been surprised to learn in May 2001 that DOT had been studying the restoration of Raleigh-to-Wilmington service, including a possible Goldsboro route. Fayetteville officials had already been informed about the study, leading the locals to believe the deck was stacked against them.

"It was going to be Fayetteville. It was meant to be Fayetteville," King said.

But the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce quickly organized to correct incorrect information in DOT's preliminary study. Other eastern North Carolina communities rallied behind the Goldsboro option.

"We showed them that Goldsboro was a viable route, and I believe it's the one that's more practical, that has much, more potential," King said. "But if we build both, everybody wins."

The state already operates passenger service between Charlotte and Raleigh and is working to extend it from Salisbury to Asheville, said David King, deputy secretary for transit. If DOT can complete the connections to Wilmington, most North Carolinians would have some access to service.

"Once you're part of the network, you have all types of opportunities to travel around the country," King said.

The "bad news," King said, is that federal funding generally is not available for rail projects. DOT typically can recoup 80-90 percent of the cost of highways, but the federal transportation budget has typically not included money for railroads.

Congress is expected to reauthorize the federal transportation program later this year, and it's possible that some rail funding will be included, King said. "There's a lot of pent-up demand for that money, but we think we'll be well-situated to compete for that money."

Local officials need to contact U.S. Reps. G.K. Butterfield and Walter B. Jones Jr., as well as U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Elizabeth Dole, King said. "Make sure that they are aware of your interest in this."

Goldsboro businessman Dave Quick noted that eastern North Carolinians have one of the highest per capita consumption of gasoline in the country. Taxes on each gallon includes a 5-cent federal tax that's designated for mass transit systems, he added.

"It's about time to get our federal government to send some of that money back home," Quick said.

Simmons added that North Carolina has traditionally only received 50 cents in federal transportation spending for every dollar it pays in federal gasoline taxes.

Neither Simmons nor King would say which route they would build if the state could only arrange funding for one.

But Simmons did say that the state would get "the biggest bang for its bucks" by restoring the tracks between Wallace and Castle Hayne, part of the Goldsboro route.

It could cost as much as $67 million to rebuild track beds and lay rail along that 27-mile stretch, but once it was accomplished, the line would be able to re-open for freight service from the port of Wilmington. DOT has estimated that would create a nearly $200 million economic impact, and at least 320 jobs, over 20 years for the counties along the railline, which would include Wayne and Duplin.

Goldsboro businessman Sandy Korschun said that track improvements are far more important for freight than for passenger trains. Passenger service would always need to be subsidized by the state, he noted, while better freight service would benefit the ports in Morehead City and Wilmington and ultimately improve the economy.