Small towns fret rail plans

Closing crossings for high-speed trains will stall traffic, they say

Staff WriterAugust 3, 2010 

  • The state Department of Transportation is soliciting public comment through Aug. 30 on the 162-mile Raleigh-to-Richmond portion of the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor.

    Residents can read a 666-page draft study and submit comments online at sehsr.org. A final study is expected in late 2011. If the federal government approves funding for the $2.3 billion project, the trains could be rolling by 2020.

— The railroad spawned a string of towns north of Raleigh in the 19th century, and now it threatens to cut them in half.

Many residents worry that Youngsville, Franklinton, Henderson and Norlina will see little benefit from a plan to run passenger trains between Raleigh and Richmond, Va., at speeds up to 110 mph. The $2.3 billion project is part of a planned high-speed rail corridor that would cut nearly two hours from train trips between North Carolina and the Northeast.

"I think high-speed rail is going to be a boon to North Carolina - but not to all the little towns it's going to go through," said Karen Wright, 57, a retired Franklinton schoolteacher who taught North Carolina history for 30 years. "It's not even going to stop here."

Franklinton was founded in 1839 as Franklin Depot. Youngsville, originally called Pacific, was renamed for a man who built a rail stop there. Up and down the CSX rail corridor today are towns whose east and west sides are stitched together by streets that crisscross the tracks.

Citing safety concerns, state agencies in North Carolina and Virginia want to close every at-grade rail crossing between Raleigh and Richmond. A few would be replaced with bridges and underpasses to carry streets over and under the tracks. The rest would become dead ends, choking the cross-town flow.

"You're coming into Youngsville, and you're going to take away two of our three crossovers," Youngsville Mayor Samuel K. Hardwick Jr. said Thursday at a public hearing in Franklinton on the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor plan. "We can't allow that to happen. We have to have the ability to cross back and forth."

Dexter Perry has built a loyal clientele over the past 14 years at his Hair Pizzazz Salon and Beauty Shop in downtown Franklinton, on a block of East Mason Street that separates the tracks from Main Street. He worries about DOT's plan to close the Mason crossing.

"That's going to take a lot of my business," said Perry, 50, too busy Thursday afternoon to put down his comb and scissors. He had two chairs filled and four more women waiting for his services.

"This is a very busy road. I get a lot of my clients because they see my business when they're driving to work."

Elic A. Senter, Franklinton's mayor, warns that every police and emergency trip to the east side of town will be delayed if Mason and College streets are closed, as proposed. Franklinton, with 2,500 residents, might have to build new substations to provide adequate response times on both sides of the tracks, he said.

"This is something we never asked for in the first place," Senter said to booming applause in the Franklinton High School gymnasium, home of the fighting Red Rams. "The town of Franklinton will get absolutely no benefit from this rail."

Two Henderson stops

Henderson - the biggest North Carolina city on the rail route north of Wake Forest, with 16,300 residents - would benefit as the site of a proposed passenger station. Two of the eight daily passenger trains would stop there.

But Henderson officials protested DOT's proposal to close 12 of the 17 rail crossings in and near the city. They said Chavasse Avenue, marked for closing, should be converted instead to an underpass. Other communities are lobbying for similar changes.

"I don't think we heard anything unexpected," said Pat Simmons, head of the DOT rail division, after an estimated 2,200 people attended four hearings in North Carolina and four in Virginia. "We also received input about how things might be adjusted or improved."

Concern in Raleigh

The little towns north of North Carolina's capital aren't alone in their concern. The plan has also caused angst in Raleigh, where two routes through the city are under consideration. A citizen task force last week endorsed the Norfolk Southern Railway corridor on the west side of Capital Boulevard as the preferred path. Norfolk Southern has lobbied against the option, contending it will disrupt its freight yard, hurt its customers and residents of the nearby Five Points neighborhood.

The Raleigh City Council is to consider the task force's recommendation today. The task force has recommended that the DOT take steps to ease the effects of closing rail crossings.

Charles A. Hayes, a Norlina native and former Warren County manager, remembers when Norlina was a thriving rail junction - with a turntable that rotated trains and a water tank that serviced steam locomotives. Hayes now promotes urban economic development as president of the Research Triangle Regional Partnership.

He returned to his hometown for a July 13 hearing on the high-speed rail plan, and greeted old friends.

"They're concerned about whether it will take their farmland," Hayes said. "And regardless where the train stops, there will be jobs created for a few years here in construction. You need people to build these things, and these people need work."

Simmons disagreed with critics who said the little railroad towns would be cut in half. He pointed out that plans call for nearly 100 new bridges and underpasses between Raleigh and Richmond, with 80 miles of road construction.

"Most of the places where we're going have grown up around a railroad historically," Simmons said. "We are expanding the use of that facility and improving the road network."

Bonnie Doss, 65, of Franklinton could barely be seen behind the lectern when she spoke at the hearing Thursday night. But the crowd hushed to hear her short, sweet speech.

"We're a close-knit community, and we're all friends, and we all know each other," she said. "And we don't want our town split down the middle."

Doss turned to her left and smiled up at Ed Lewis, the tall hearing officer from DOT.

"Seriously, this is a serious thing for us," she said. "Can't you just put it out in the country somewhere?"

bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4527

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