RALEIGH — A new report lays out issues surrounding a proposed 110-mph passenger train from Raleigh to Richmond, and the hardest choices pop up before the train gets out of downtown Raleigh.
An environmental study released Thursday could set up a clash in Raleigh between neighborhoods, developers, railroads and political leaders over whether the trains run to the left or to the right side of Capital Boulevard. The question covers just two miles of a planned 162-mile rail line between the two state capitals, but the answer could have a wide impact in downtown.
Should the trains follow Norfolk Southern tracks north from Jones Street along the west side of Capital Boulevard to Wake Forest Road? Or should they go along Capital's east side, using CSX tracks?
City officials oppose the CSX route, because it would close several downtown rail crossings. The required track improvements would sever key streets and isolate the growing Glenwood South entertainment district.
"In an area where we've had a lot of successful investment ... there was a concern raised that closing these streets would divorce those two sides of downtown from each other," said Eric Lamb, Raleigh transportation services manager.
The Norfolk Southern route offers its own problems. While it would reduce conflicts with transit planning and freight train traffic, this alternative also would cramp the downtown flow of cars and pedestrians.
And it would cost a lot more. Compared with the CSX path, the Norfolk Southern alternative would add about $44 million, and more than double the number of businesses forced to move.
"That will be a significant decision in Raleigh," said Pat Simmons, director of the state DOT Rail Division. "After that, as you head north, you have less urban development through which you have to thread this needle."
State and federal agencies will hold public hearings in Virginia and North Carolina in July on the 666-page draft environmental statement evaluating options for the Raleigh-to-Richmond train.
Big money at stake
North Carolina and Virginia won $620 million in federal grants this year to provide faster and more frequent trains south of Raleigh and north of Richmond, as part of a proposed Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor from Charlotte to Washington, D.C. The new study advances their quest for more than $3 billion in federal funds to build the new line.
"We are very pleased with the multistate cooperation and agreements with the freight railroads, which will serve as a model for other states in pushing high-speed rail beyond their borders," Joseph Szabo, the federal railroad administrator, said in a prepared statement accompanying the release of the study.
North Carolina will seek a share of $2.1 billion in additional rail grants to be issued later this year. A final decision on the best Raleigh-to-Richmond plan is expected in 2011. It would roughly follow U.S. 1, making use of an old CSX rail line that was abandoned north of Norlina in the 1980s but still serves freight customers north of Raleigh.
The N.C. Department of Transportation, which is planning the Richmond route, wants to eliminate every at-grade rail-street crossing - where automobiles drive across tracks. That means closing more than 100 crossings - some in Raleigh - and replacing nearly 100 with bridges and underpasses.
With trains running faster along a route that is 35 miles shorter than the current Amtrak line through Selma and Rocky Mount, the new track would cut the Raleigh-to-Richmond trip from nearly four hours to about two.
Two daily round-trip trains would go nonstop between the two cities. A third would stop at a new station in La Crosse, Va., and a fourth at a new station in Henderson.
The proposals to close crossings or build bridges could have a big impact where tracks run through the middle of small towns along the way, including Franklinton and Henderson.
The issue will be especially touchy, and expensive, in downtown Raleigh. The CSX and Norfolk Southern tracks diverge just north of the Jones Street crossing. Both options would undermine the pub-lined Jones Street as a key route between downtown and Glenwood South.
The CSX route proposal would require a new bridge to elevate Jones at least 25 feet over the tracks - and over Glenwood and West streets nearby. Norfolk Southern would close the crossing, making Jones a dead-end.
Raleigh officials objected to the CSX route because it would close the nearby West and Harrington crossings.
So they asked DOT to evaluate the Norfolk Southern route, which would keep West and Harrington streets open. But as it moves north along Capital Boulevard it would close the Fairview Road crossing, cutting a traffic link between Five Points and Capital Boulevard.
The Norfolk Southern route would cost about $44 million more than the CSX route, because of higher right-of-way expenses. It would dislocate 54 businesses, many of them along West Street and Fairview Road, while the CSX route would displace 20 to 23 businesses.
The environmental impact statement said the Norfolk Southern route would provide other advantages over the CSX path. It would avert conflict with freight rail traffic at two points in downtown Raleigh, and it would give the city more leeway in designing the proposed Union Station to serve train and transit lines in downtown Raleigh.
A citizen committee advising the Raleigh City Council on Union Station plans also will be asked to weigh in on the high-speed rail options.
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