Rail Response: Getting on Board for Passenger Rail Expansion

Scott Mooneyham, Director of Political Communication and Coordination

Over the course of late summer and fall, cities across North Carolina are hosting a series of local meetings examining the opportunities to expand access to intercity passenger rail in North Carolina.

Rail Response is a project of the North Carolina Metro Mayors Coalition and this series of meetings is meant to look at how intercity passenger rail—and an expansion of routes throughout the state—could bring economic and other benefits to North Carolina.

The series’ first two meetings, in Wilmington and Durham, have showcased the public interest in this topic.

The meetings are designed to explore funding streams for rail systems and the resources a municipality needs to compete for intercity rail funding, as well as understand the limits of municipal authority when it comes to the expansion of rail.

The project is led by a workgroup of mayors and former mayors, with its co-chairs Susan Kluttz, former Salisbury mayor and former Secretary of the NC Dept. of Cultural Resources, and Nick Tennyson, former mayor of Durham and former Secretary of the NC Dept. of Transportation. The other members are Durham Mayor Elaine O’Neal, Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines, Salisbury Mayor Karen Alexander, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, Mooresville Mayor Miles Atkins, Rocky Mount Mayor Sandy Roberson, Concord Mayor Bill Dusch and Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo.

The effort comes as the Federal Railroad Administration begins considering an expansion of passenger rail routes through funding provided by the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress in late 2021. The focus is on intercity rail between cities, and not commuter rail within them.

The legislation includes $66 billion in passenger and freight rail infrastructure investment, with $44 billion to be distributed through the Federal Railroad Administration’s discretionary grant program.

As a part of the planning process, the NC Department of Transportation has applied for 13 planning grants of $500,000, each corresponding to proposals to connect more North Carolina cities by passenger rail or make improvements to existing routes.

Currently, 16 cities in the state are served by passenger rail service. The Piedmont and Carolinian trains, part of North Carolina’s Amtrak service, each make a morning and evening run between Raleigh and Charlotte. The trains stop in Cary, Durham, Burlington, Greensboro, High Point, Salisbury, and Kannapolis. The Carolinian also makes stops in Selma, Wilson, and Rocky Mount in the eastern part of the state.

The NC Department of Transportation Rail Division is currently looking to build upon earlier plans devised in the 2000s to update the feasibility of intercity rail expansion, both in western and eastern North Carolina.

The goal is eventually to have passenger rail service connect cities and towns from the coast to the mountains, from Wilmington to Asheville.

The Rail Response effort and the workgroup members hope that by fostering more community conversations around intercity passenger rail and an expansion of service, the state will build momentum to see the dreams become a reality.

We will keep you up to date in future editions of Southern City as the project moves forward and the funding awards are decided.