High-speed rail hits a hurdle in Guilford

by Jordan Green

Improvements planned for the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor through Greensboro include the elimination of crossings, like this one near Adams Farm Shopping Center, and new grade separations. (photo by Jordan Green)

Greensboro has been known as the “Gate City” ever since native son John Motley Morehead maneuvered to have the railroad run through the heart of Guilford County instead of its more direct path through Asheboro. High Point was so named reputedly because it was at the highest point on the North Carolina Railroad between Charlotte and Goldsboro.

While ample discussion has taken place about shifting the economic focus from textiles and furniture to transportation and logistics, about Piedmont Triad International Airport’s role in spurring regional growth and attracting an ultra-high speed internet pilot project to Greensboro, the Triad’s larger metro neighbor to the southwest, Charlotte, has taken the lead in rail innovation, opening the state’s first light-rail system in 2007.

The House Select Committee on a Comprehensive Rail Service Plan for North Carolina, which has been studying rail transportation needs and spending priorities, includes no legislators from Guilford County, even though a critical link of the embryonic Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor from Raleigh to Charlotte runs right through the heart of Greensboro and down through High Point. In January, the state received a $545 million federal grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for high-speed rail that will be used primarily for improvements to the Raleigh-Charlotte corridor, including adding track, closing crossings and adding grade separations to allow trains and motor vehicles pass freely.

Raleigh and Charlotte have two lawmakers apiece represented on the select committee. The Triad’s sole representative is Rep. Earline Parmon of Winston-Salem. (The Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor includes a service connector to Winston-Salem.)

The state plans to spend the money on 30 projects, including three valued at $13.9 million in Guilford County. They include $4.8 million to close a railroad crossing at Carmon Road in eastern Guilford County, $6.9 million to restore double track from Greensboro down through the southwest corner of the county to allow trains to increase speeds up to 79 mph and $2.2 million to add parking space for rail customers at the High Point Station.

The House Select Committee on a Comprehensive Rail Service Plan for North Carolina formed in 2008 to study encroachment issues and protection of railroad corridors. The following year the select committee introduced a bill called the Railroad Corridor Protection Act. It passed the House with the votes of only two members of the Guilford County delegation, and is expected to be taken up by the Senate during this year’s short session. Following the lead of the NC League of Municipalities, the city of Greensboro’s proposed legislative agenda currently lists the city as being in opposition to the bill.

Assistant City Attorney Tom Carruthers gave the bill only a glancing description to the city council in a briefing on the proposed legislation agenda on Feb. 16, and no council members asked questions about it. Discussion at the briefing was soon consumed with bickering over an item concerned with giving the council the power to appoint the city attorney instead of leaving the decision up to the city manager. A divided council voted 5-4 last year in support of the change, and members on the prevailing side were angered that the General Assembly took no action on the initiative after a member on the losing side allegedly lobbied against it.

Lawmakers from other parts of the state hope that Greensboro leaders will take a look at the railroad bill and support it.

“For the economic development of this state and for Greensboro, it would be terribly shortsighted to oppose this legislation for the future development of high-speed rail in North Carolina,” said Rep. Ray Rapp, chairman of the select committee and a sponsor of the Railroad Corridor Management Act. “It’s not to fight old battles over property rights; it’s to look to the future for the development of these rail corridors. I hope Greensboro will get on board with this, no pun intended.”

Among the rail needs identified by the select committee, as articulated in a document drafted by the NC Rail Division called the North Carolina High Speed Rail Project Management Plan, are “rail capacity to promote economic development, better service for the military and ports, accommodating heavier rail cars (286 lbs.), addressing rail and highway congestion, increasing passenger ridership and providing more intercity and urban transit choices.”

For Rapp, whose rural, western district rings Asheville, rail passenger ridership is inextricably linked to economic development.

“We’re trying to build rail infrastructure throughout our state so we can protect our ports,” he said. “Right now, only 2 percent of traffic on the East Coast is coming through our ports. One reason is because we don’t have deep enough ports, and the other is because we don’t have adequate rail. Savannah and Charleston are eating our lunch when it comes to intermodal traffic. Much of the materiel out of Fort Bragg has to go through Charleston and Savannah, and some of it has to go to the Gulf Coast. This whole issue of upgrading rail and protecting corridors for the future is critical for not only Greensboro, but for the whole state.”

Rapp added that North Carolina has an opportunity to capture new port traffic with the completion of a project to widen the Panama Canal in 2014.

Chandra Taylor, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, which supports the bill, said she sees improvements to high-speed intercity rail as whetting the public’s appetite for light-rail systems that help residents get around urban areas.

“As more people recognize and are able to use methods other than a car to travel, they’ll be more likely to support actions to bring light rail to our cities,” she said. “Because we have this influx of stimulus funding providing improvements along the High Speed Rail Corridor, people will see their travel times reduced.”

Last August, the General Assembly passed a law allowing Forsyth and Guilford counties to create a special tax district that would levy a 1/2-cent sales tax to pay for a regional public transit system.

Carruthers emphasized that the city council has not approved the proposed legislative agenda, adding that he has been tasked with researching the Railroad Corridor Management Act and other bills, and bringing additional information back to council. He said he had not been aware that a House select committee set up promoting high-speed rail had proposed the legislation to which the city is currently opposed. The city’s concern with the bill, he said, is that it would compromise its ability to rezone properties near railroads.

“The railroad has declared 200 feet of easement, and not everybody agrees that they have that,” Carruthers said. “Look over where the railways run, and you’ll see they have allowed buildings there. The city will have no right of zoning decisions over that corridor. Is that going to prevent high-speed rail? I don’t think so. Will the city and the railroad work together as we always have done? Yes. Is it in Greensboro’s interest to have high-speed rail? Yes. It’s not either-or.”

Property owners in eastern Guilford County have met with Sen. Don Vaughan and Sen. Phil Berger, the Republican leader, to voice concerns about the legislation. Among them is Pete Goria, who owns a total of about 50 acres on two parcels located along the railroad, one near the eastern leg of the Urban Loop and the other on Buchanan Church Road. A trailer and container rental business operates from one property and a concrete products facility is located on the other.

Agoria said he believes the railroad companies — in his case the North Carolina Railroad — are attempting to reclaim properties granted to them in the mid-19 th century without giving their present-day owners due compensation.

“It’s very complicated because back in the 1850s, when they gave them that land grant, they had the right for 10 years to claim the land and get a deed for it,” Agoria said. “For years they didn’t care because the railroads weren’t doing well. What they want to do is reinstate the law from the 1850s…. We’ve always acknowledged that the railroad track was there, even though we owned to the center of the track. We’ve always allowed them that 25 feet on either side that they would live with. They came back several years ago and wanted us to sign a licensing agreement that says they have a right to 100 feet on either side, and they can tell us to move in 90 days. They want to take it for nothing. That’s what we object to. I think they think by passing this legislation, they can go back and claim their rights from the 1850s.”

Plans outlined by the NC Rail Division include extensive future improvements to the corridor east of Greensboro to the Alamance County line, including the closure of Buchanan Church Road and grade separations at nearby Franklin Boulevard and Ward Road, double tracking from Greensboro to McLeansville and replacement of the Buffalo Creek Bridge.

“These are questions real estate lawyers salivate over,” Vaughan said, adding that he has urged property owners to first hire a title company to research the history of their deeds and then retain a lawyer.

“The bill is set up to define what the property is in the railroad corridor,” Vaughan said. “This goes back to laws that have been on the books since the Civil War. Most of this is going to be defined by the deeds. The property rights are going to be defined by the deeds.”

Rapp said fears that the bill will empower a land grab by the railroad companies are unjustified.

“This is not about past disputes with the railroad,” he said. “This is about protecting the corridor in the future. In order for the railroad to take any property along the right of way it has to go through a similar process as DOT does when its widening roads.”

What the bill does say is that when a railroad company files a corridor map, then city and county governments must obtain permission from the railroad before dedicating new streets within the corridor, approving developments where the only way in or out is across the corridor or issuing permits for developments within the corridor.

Rep. Earl Jones, one of two Guilford County lawmakers who voted for the House bill, said he expects that the honey of federal stimulus funding for high-speed rail will make it difficult for members of the Senate to stand in the way of the bill.

“It will be a benefit for the people, save money and clean up the environment and take some cars off the road,” he predicted.

Vaughan suggested the rebirth of rail in North Carolina will be a tightrope act.

“We need to have high-speed rail, but we need to have the input of those affected,” he said. “We need to balance the needs of the future with the rights of the individual. We’re going to have to consider the needs of people right here and right now, and we’re going to have to look at the needs for the future for another hundred years.”