Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Gaston, N.C., to consider closing railroad crossings to traffic

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The imminent reactivation of an old railroad route through Gastonia could mean that one or more local street crossings will be closed to vehicular traffic, the Gaston Gazette reports. The state-run N.C. Rail Co. wants to eliminate two crossings to reduce safety concerns and avoid the cost of installing safety devices along the old Piedmont and Northern railway.

Included in the proposal are the crossings on Ida Street (near Long Avenue) and East Park Avenue (near North Chestnut Street), which would be closed before a four-mile stretch of the railroad reopens from Gastonia to Ranlo. The line is scheduled to reopen as early as December.

Gastonia City Council must approve any such closings. Before voting on the issue, it will hold public hearings on the state's proposal during its regular meeting Oct. 6.

City planning director Jack Kiser said a number of residents are expected to turn out in opposition. A recent transportation committee meeting and a drop-in public meeting to discuss the issue at the Gastonia Police Department were attended by 30 to 40 people, he said.

"There were some people there who were favorable to (the closings)," he said. "But I'd say an overwhelming majority were opposed to it."

The N.C. Rail Co. also wants to install safety gates and flashing warning lights where the P&N rail crosses Modena and Grover streets. Those safety measures were in place at those intersections when the railway was last being actively used in the 1980s, Kiser said, and city staffers support the reinstallation of those devices.

Officials hope to eventually restore freight service along the entire P&N line from Gastonia to Mount Holly, to help encourage economic development here. The General Assembly last year approved $5 million to restore the track, and Gaston County commissioners promised a $500,000 match.

Eventually, local leaders hope the railway could carry commuters the full 23 miles from Gastonia to downtown Charlotte.

City Council will have to consider several issues in weighing the crossing closings. Those include the loss of convenience to nearby residents and drivers, the safety of leaving open or closing the crossings, and the effect on emergency vehicle response times to nearby areas, Kiser said.

"It's a difficult situation," he said. "Like anything else, it's one of these issues where there's a lot of pros and cons and you sort of have to balance things out."

Ida Street is one of three current entry points to a former mill village of residential homes just north of Long Avenue. East Park Avenue connects a residential span between Modena and North Morehead streets.

The state recommended the Ida Street closure due to safety concerns. The recommendation to close the East Park Avenue crossing stems from its location where the P&N line becomes a double track. Cars would be switched on and off at that location to make up trains, which would likely block vehicular traffic at the intersection for extended periods of time.

Constructed in 1911, the P&N carried freight and passengers between Gastonia and Charlotte for several decades. Advocates for reopening it also believe it could host tourist activities, such as dinner trains and tours to see the McAdenville Christmas lights, Belmont Abbey College and other county sites.

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