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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

NCDOT officials meet to discuss rail projects

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Officials with the N.C. Department of Transportation's Rail Division didn't exactly quell the concerns of those who gathered at a town hall meeting in Landis, N.C., the Salisbury Post reports. The meeting, which was an informal session held at Landis' town hall, was for area residents to ask rail officials questions about proposed rail corridor projects.

North Carolina received more than $500 million for railway improvements that will allow for passenger trains to travel at faster speeds, making it easier for trains by creating fewer crossings, obstructions or hazards that include curves. In Rowan County more than $100 million has been allotted to realign curves, eliminate some crossings and construct grade separations at certain points and restore a second track along a 10-mile stretch south of Salisbury to north of Kannapolis.

Officials from the N.C. Railroad Co., the company owns and manages the 317-mile rail corridor extending from Morehead City to Charlotte, did not attend the meeting.

Marc Hamel, a rail environmental planning engineer with the Rail Division, explained the second track was removed in 1963 because traffic was dwindling and signal system improvements were taking place. The addition of a second track would increase corridor capacity, decrease congestion and improve passenger train schedule reliability that will allow freight and passenger trains to quickly and efficiently maneuver around each other. Clearing up congestion would allow trains to go faster. Hamel said the plans are to increase the speed of passenger trains from 79 mph to around 90 mph.

One of the concerns raised to rail officials was what happens to pedestrians or vehicles that are crossing the tracks where trains are traveling 90 mph.

Jason Orthner, a project engineer with the Rail Division said the project calls for overpasses and underpasses for pedestrians. "We are trying to create locations and evenly spaced areas where you can access along the corridor," he said.

China Grove Mayor Don Bringle inquired about how crossings like Thom Street would be affected by closings. He said residents are also concerned about getting emergency services to their homes if rescue vehicles don't have a crossing available. Orthner pointed out that some of the reasons for closing or not closing certain crossings were looked at years ago in a study. One of the reasons not to close crossings was because of the tracks' proximity to historic homes or buildings. The number of homes that would be displaced was also considered, said David Spainhour, a Highway Division maintenance engineer.

Bringle asked when was this study done. Orthner said about eight years ago.

A public hearing, which will likely be held in five or six months, will then take place. Orthner could not provide any further details on a specific timeframe.

The Rail Division has been studying crossings to determine the safety of passengers and train engineers. Officials are looking at crossings to see when they can be replaced, upgraded or closed.

Officials have said they expect the more than 30 projects in 11 counties to create up to 4,800 jobs over the next four years.

Hamel spoke of legislation that essentially says the railroad can control 200 feet of the rail right-of-way for railroad purposes. He said property owners would need to show proof of ownership of that right-of-way.

Furr asked about a project target date. Orthner said the limit to spend the funds must be done by 2017. Orthner added the faster or more intensity they move with the project, the better. The project is scheduled to be completed by 2014, but it may need to be adjusted, he said.

Landis Mayor Dennis Brown asked if that was a realistic timeframe. Orthner said they can't skip steps. Furr said he fears that once the project date nears 2014 they will not talk to citizens.