Two of six proposed routes to connect local rail service to the port would utilize much of the abandoned rail bed between here and Wilmington, Columbus County commissioners learned Tuesday night as they agreed to underwrite $10,000 of the cost of a conceptual study expected to cost more than $70,000.
Paul Worley, director of the rail division of the N.C. Dept. of Transportation, said the study, which will examine options for extending direct rail service from Columbus County to Wilmington, is expected by be completed by September. The study will examine the concept of re-establishing a connection between the R.J. Corman Railroad, CSX railroad and the N.C. State Port in Wilmington.
Primary routes to be considered for extending tracks are from Whiteville to Council via Hallsboro, from Whiteville to the existing CSX Southeast Line at the ColumbusBladen county border, and from Whiteville to Malmo just east of Wilmington.
The study also will examine costs of three secondary routes: Chadbourn to Bladenboro, Whiteville to Bladenboro and Whiteville to Clarkton.
In addition to extending rail lines, additional rehabilitation work is needed on the tracks between Whiteville and Chadbourn, including the spur tracks serving the former Georgia Pacific plant.
Little discussion ensued among commissioners about the various proposed routes, but board Chairman Giles E. “Buddy” Byrd was enthused about the idea of utilizing the old rail bed, abandoned several decades ago when the old Seaboard Coastline Railroad stopped service between Wilmington and Florence, S.C.
“Most of that rail bed has not been developed,” Byrd said, “so it’s already there to be used.” Commissioners unanimously agreed to kick in $10,000 to help pay for the study. The Columbus Jobs Foundation will pay $5,000, and the remaining $5,000 of a $20,000 required local match would be paid for by towns along the rail line.
Worley said that DOT will absorb all costs above $20,000 for the study. While preliminary estimates are that the study will cost $70,000, Worley said expenses could approach $80,000.
80,000. Columbus County Economic Developer Gary Lanier has written towns in an effort to raise the additional $5,000 required for the local match. Whiteville, Chadbourn and Tabor City have been asked to kick in $1,250 each, Fair Bluff has been asked for $750, and $500 has been requested from Cerro Gordo.
Worley estimated costs of connecting local rail to the CSX line that serves the port would be $80-200 million, depending on the route chosen and the permitting requirements for each route. It’s those costs that that the study will address.
The conceptual study will be conducted by the Institute for Transportation Research and Education and the Alward Institute for Collaborative Science with a target completion date of Sept. 15, although that is subject to change.
After purchasing the former Carolina Southern Railroad last year for $10 million, Kentucky-based R.J. Corman has invested $2.5 million of its own money, plus another $765,625 in matching funds from DOT, to refurbish tracks west of Chadbourn to the S.C. line. An estimated additional $12.5 million will be needed to upgrade the line between Tabor City, Chadbourn, Fair Bluff and Mullins, S.C. to allow trains to operate at 25 mph, and R.J. Corman is applying for federal grants to help fund that upgrade. Trains currently are limited to a maximum of 10 mph. A provision in the recently-enacted North Carolina state budget allows the DOT to participate in rail upgrades in South Carolina to Mullins.
The conceptual study to consider the economic impacts of connecting Corman to CSX and Wilmington will include a literature review of the effects of adding rail linkages, a benefit-cost analysis for each proposed route and an comparison of costs of rail shipping versus shipping by truck, a sector analysis of how the connection would influence state industries, an analysis of the impact of a rail extension on jobs, wages and gross regional product, a site analysis also involving CSX representatives of advantages and barriers in extending the rail lines, and an environmental assessment involving discussions with the Army Corps of Engineers. A full environmental impact document, not a part of the feasibility study, would be required at a later time.