Amtrak CEO discusses passenger rail expansion across NC
New proposal would create 12 routes, including Salisbury to Asheville
SALISBURY, N.C. (WBTV) - A wide expansion of passenger rail service across North Carolina could be on track soon if local leaders have their way.
The North Carolina Mayors Coalition is asking the federal government for millions of transportation dollars to create 12 new passenger train routes, including one from Salisbury to Asheville that would link up with the existing Charlotte to Raleigh route.
The CEO of Amtrak was in Salisbury on Wednesday to meet with local leaders from across the region. Stephen Gardner arrived by train at the Salisbury Depot, along with officials from the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
NCDOT and many local municipalities across the state are hoping the federal government will approve a plan to establish 12 new passenger rail routes. Local mayors say it is a critical need.
“It affects economic development, it affects prosperity for the people who ride because it gives them a different mode of transportation,” said Salisbury Mayor Karen Alexander. “And we’re all working together for the greater good. I use the Amtrak to get to Raleigh for a lot of my meetings because I can get there in two hours and I’m not exhausted from driving on the parking lot of 85.”
Alexander is part of Rail Response, an initiative of the North Carolina Metro Mayors Coalition. The group organized the event as state officials seek funding through the bipartisan federal infrastructure bill to explore improvements to intercity passenger rail.
The co-chairs of the Rail Response initiative are Susan Kluttz, former Salisbury mayor and former Secretary of the N.C. Dept. of Cultural Resources and Nick Tennyson, former mayor of Durham and former Secretary of the N.C. Dept. of Transportation. Both spoke at the Wednesday meeting in Salisbury.
The meeting in Salisbury was the fifth and final such meeting. The other meetings were held in locations across North Carolina.
The official applicant submitting the proposal is the North Carolina Department of Transportation Rail Division.
“We realize the importance of this corridor. We know there is no intercity passenger rail that reaches western North Carolina, so there is a need,” said Ronald Lucas, manager of Planning and Development with NCDOT.
Gardner, the CEO of Amtrak, says other states are also making the same pitch, but admits North Carolina may have an advantage.
“We’ve got a great partnership here with North Carolina and we’re going to be a strong partner going forward with the state here to help implement their vision,” Gardner said. “It’s going to take time. Once there’s an opportunity to start planning and developing some of these new routes then we have to prioritize and focus in on which phases happen when. There’s a lot of work to make sure we’ve got great stations a railroad infrastructure that can reliably handle the train and work with our freight partners and we also need to make sure that we’ve got the fleet and other assets necessary, but there’s a good pathway.”
If approved, Amtrak passenger service would expand with 12 new routes and would travel as far west as Asheville and as far east as Wilmington. Tracks already in use would connect with Amtrak’s main line in Salisbury. Connections to cities like Washington DC, Atlanta, New York, and New Orleans would also be possible.
“It expands the opportunities for each of those small communities like Kannapolis to have a presence in Washington, Richmond, Raleigh, Greensboro, and all the other places too,” said Kannapolis Mayor Darrell Hinnant. “It’s a huge benefit for all of us in every single community.”
Former Salisbury Mayor Susan Kluttz has been working to expand passenger rail service for 14 years, but believes this is the best opportunity to state has.
“It’s critical. We really really need it for North Carolina. I’m very hopeful that they will all be approved and we’ll get this started,” Kluttz said. “We’re hoping for all 12, but whichever ones, we should find out November or December coming up. We think all 12 are critical for North Carolina.”
Officials say the federal government could approve or deny the entire plan, or approve selected routes. A decision is expected by December.
According to a resolution of support approved by the Salisbury City Council in July, the proposed rail service would cover roughly 139 miles. The estimated cost is $665 million and the annual operating cost would be between $7.3 million and $10.9 million.
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