09/13/07 — N.C. rail director talks about future

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N.C. rail director talks about future

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on September 13, 2007 1:53 PM

To Patrick Simmons, director of the state Department of Transportation's Rail Division, the purchase of Goldsboro's Union Station was one of the first steps in an effort to improve rail service across eastern North Carolina.

"Goldsboro is a way station between Raleigh and Wilmington, and a way station between Raleigh and any future service to Morehead City," Simmons said.

Eventually Goldsboro could be considered the gateway to the southeastern part of the state, particularly as DOT works to expand its railways east and west of their current north/south routes, he said.

"Goldsboro is figuring into the mix. People are realizing it's a growth area, an area with a good quality of life and an area that needs some economic development," he said. "I think it's just a matter of time. It's not going to happen tomorrow, but it's going to happen.

"The first step was to do what we could, so we bought the station. This was a strategic move, and it's only one piece of the puzzle."

From here, DOT's focus will be in several directions.

Locally, the department will work closely with the city to rebuild the century-old station.

The goal is for the building to be used not just for rail activity, but also for other purposes.

"Trains are in the station for maybe two minutes at a time, so what do you do with it for the rest of the time?" Simmons asked. "That's wide open."

Stations that have gone through similar reclamation projects have also housed police sub-stations, travel and tourism offices, historic foundations and museums. Most also are home to other local transit services. In many cases, the renovation of such stations has helped spark or continue downtown revitalizations.

What happens in Goldsboro, though, will be largely up to city officials.

"It's up to the community to help make it a success," Simmons said. "Part of the bargain for us to help bring in state and federal funding is for the community to help make it successful over time. We look at ourselves as almost like being a lead investor."

Tasha Logan, assistant Goldsboro city manager, said that right now, their plan is for the first floor to be utilized for transportation purposes -- rail, as well as local bus systems, national bus systems like Greyhound and possibly car rentals -- and the second floor for something else, whether a police sub station or office space.

That decision, she explained, will be made once the building is stabilized.

"That process will include community members, involve community meetings and really take a core group of people to make sure it fits what we need here in Goldsboro," she said. "At this time we just haven't got our hands around it yet."

Simmons is hoping the renovations will be complete and the station open for rubber-tire transit and local use sometime within "single-digit years."

But opening up the eastern part of the state to rail service, he explained, will take much more time and effort and will be heavily reliant upon the increase of freight and military use -- something already happening with the growth of the Port of Wilmington.

"The trend line is good," he said. "It's important for the military and we're looking for the freight customers who need that service, because that's why we do this.

"The main reason is not for the sex appeal of the passenger trains, but for the economic benefit of freight. Freight means jobs. Passenger service is the icing on the cake."