NORLINA — Residents of rural Warren County hope money will be coming with a proposed high-speed rail line that would close roads, separate farmers from their pastures, and force three dozen families to sell their homes.
"Are the railroads looking to bring jobs here for the folks?" said Karron Higgs, wearing a tattered T-shirt as he addressed state officials from North Carolina and Virginia at a public hearing Tuesday night. "And if they are, do the folks here get first priority on the jobs - or are they bringing in outsiders?"
About 250 people attended the first of eight hearings on a proposed 162-mile line that would carry trains as fast as 110 mph between Raleigh and Richmond. Four hearings are on tap in Virginia tonight and next week, followed by three in North Carolina - in Raleigh (July 26), Henderson (July 27) and Franklinton (July 29).
Norlina, about 60 miles northeast of Raleigh, had a train station in the early 20th century, and freight trains passed through until the 1980s. Today, 10-foot pines grow between the rusted tracks. The freight trains stop a few miles south of Norlina for the railroad's northernmost customer, a Federal Paperboard chip mill.
In their plan to lay new tracks, Virginia and North Carolina are not proposing to have trains stop in Warren County. The only stations planned between Raleigh and Richmond are north of Norlina in LaCrosse, Va., and south of Norlina in Henderson.
New roads and rails would displace families, mostly in Norlina itself. Residents aren't giving up hope of getting a train station again one day.
"I would certainly welcome a railroad back," said Ronnie Perkinson, whose father and grandfather worked on the railroad in Norlina.
"It seems our economy left with the railroad. We can all remember when this county was in a lot better shape than it is now."
Warren County had an unemployment rate of 11.5 percent in May, compared to a state average of 9.9 percent.
Ernie Fleming of Ridgeway, a Warren County commissioner and antiques dealer, lives in a restored house facing the tracks. It was built by a railroad investor in 1845. The high-speed rail proposal would turn some street-rail crossings into bridges, and close others - including Joe Jones Road, which crosses the tracks at the foot of Fleming's driveway.
The Ridgeway Volunteer Fire Department is near Fleming's house, but on the other side of the tracks. Closing that rail crossing would force fire trucks to go an extra mile or so to reach him in an emergency.
"I think that means my fire insurance rates are going to go up," Fleming said. "Other people's rates, too."
Nancy Iak, who lives in the town of Wise, said the new tracks would cut a slice off her front yard.
"My only concern at this point is that everybody gets compensated," Iak said. "We live in a very poor area, and our real estate values are low. I would like to make sure our property is considered equally valuable as it would be in counties where there is a higher standard of living and a better economic situation."
David Perkinson studied a map showing tracks that would split his 130 acres of woodlands and pastures. The rail corridor would take only a strip of land 120 to 150 feet wide, but it would make half his land inaccessible.
"If you've got 50 cows and you've got to move them from one pasture to another," he asked, "how are you going to do it?"
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