Looking ahead by looking back: Wilmington eyes future trolley system through downtown

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Big changes in industry are coming to Wilmington. They're changes that impact local freight lines that could ultimately impact your commute.

Now, Wilmington city leaders are trying to come up with a plan that would shift CSX rail traffic out of the city away from future growth and development.

Laura Padgett heads up the Rail Alignment Study. It's an effort to study relocating much of the freight lines to the west side of the Cape Fear River.

"What we want to do is help the port of Wilmington compete against Charleston and Savannah and potentially Norfolk and Hampton Roads," says Padgett. "The plan at $600 million is expensive, but we think it creates revenue. Freight is private enterprise. It makes money."

If you look at Wilmington from the air, there's an eight-mile loop running through downtown. CSX has a long-range plan to have freight trains 10,000 feet long to move goods out of the port.

In a densely populated city that's growing, that's not good news.

"It means we have a health and safety issue that's significant," says Padgett, "because there's the potential for longer trains to block access to the hospital."

The current route around town has 32 crossings through major thoroughfares. With freight trains almost two miles long, several of those roads would be blocked at once.

Now there's an effort to realign the thoughts of private enterprise to fund this new proposal.

The second half of this long-term proposal is sort of a giant recycling project. If you've moved freight traffic across the river, that still leaves the tracks through town.

The director of planning and transportation is eyeing using those existing tracks for a trolley rail.

"You've got UNCW on the east side of town, and downtown to the west," says Glenn Harbeck. "If we had stops every quarter mile, which research shows that's how far people would travel for mass transportation, it would just help our long-range mission of new multi-purpose development as Wilmington continues to grow."

Padgett's office is hoping to create a four-county coalition to include input from New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender and Columbus counties. Padgett says private industry is already showing interest in the rail project.

CSX has said its plan to extend train length and have the trains move through town eight times a week could happen by 2025.

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