HILLSBOROUGH — Suddenly, two years after it was the object of a local coffee-shop petition, real momentum exists behind the drive to establish a passenger train depot in northern Orange County.
Hillsborough residents hear the whistles of four Amtrak trains rolling through town every day, one of them bound for New York. By midsummer there will be six trains running daily between Raleigh and Charlotte. They'll make seven stops along the way.
But not in Hillsborough. Not yet.
"This is a main line that passes through town," said Tom Campanella of Hillsborough, a UNC-Chapel Hill city planning professor. "We're literally sitting next to a jugular vein here. All we need to do is tap into it."
That's what local leaders are determined to do. They say a local train stop could boost the historic town's tourism economy, give residents new options for commuting to their jobs, and spawn a dense mix of housing and commercial growth downtown.
"It's kind of like our own economic stimulus plan, if you think about it," said Margaret Hauth, the town planning director.
To protect a potential station site, the town board agreed last summer to pay $600,000 for 20 acres known as the Collins property, on the south side of town. Now the town and the Orange County commissioners have asked a task force, headed by Campanella, to recommend the best spot for a rail stop.
At a public input session Wednesday in Hillsborough's Big Barn, Campanella outlined pros and cons of the Collins property and six other sites. They range across the map from Efland, west of Hillsborough, to University Station east of town.
Two sites would put the depot within a short walk of Hillsborough's downtown. One is a gravel lot at the foot of Nash Street, where a local rail depot stood until 1964, when the old Southern Railway ended service to Hillsborough.
Rail fans were cheered last year by an economic study from Amtrak and the state Department of Transportation.
The study concluded that a Hillsborough stop could boost ticket revenues enough to trim the state's Amtrak subsidy by about $56,000 a year. Most riders would come from the Chapel Hill area, where Amtrak customers now find the nearest stations in Burlington and Durham.
Some Hillsborough residents are Amtrak commuters now.
Art Mines, 58, drives to Burlington to catch the morning train to Greensboro, where he works as an audiologist. In 2007, Mines gathered more than 300 signatures on a petition posted in the Cup A Joe coffee shop, to have Hillsborough build its own station.
"I thought it was a good idea at the time, and when gas prices went up it became a better idea," Mines said Wednesday night as about 60 residents gathered to get information about the station.
The DOT-Amtrak study estimated the cost at $1 million for a platform with lighting and canopy, and $5 million to $6 million for a station.
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