CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The mayors of two North Carolina cities, one in the mountains and one on the coast, are using their voices to promote a proposed expansion of Amtrak passenger train service that would connect communities on each end of the state.
"As the larger passenger rail system is modernized, rail travel is increasingly attracting more and more travelers," Esther Manheimer, the mayor of Asheville, wrote in a column originally published this weekend in the Asheville Citizen Times newspaper. "It is a travel solution that makes sense as we all look for ways to live more sustainable and less hectic lives.
"This is an exciting moment for the possibilities of passenger rail," Bill Saffo, the mayor of Wilmington, wrote in a similar column published in the Wilmington StarNews. "More and more people are using rail for travel, and system modernization is making it increasingly attractive to travelers."
In 2021, Amtrak, which operates intercity passenger rail service nationwide, released its 2035 Vision plan. which proposes new and expanded passenger train services in the Carolinas.
If this proposed plan were to become reality, North Carolina Amtrak services would expand as far west as Asheville and as far east as Wilmington. The service would use existing tracks that merge with the mainline in Salisbury. Passengers could then reach existing Amtrak service already in Charlotte, Salisbury, Greensboro, Raleigh, and other cities. Regional connections to New Orleans, Atlanta, Washington, and New York would also be possible.
"Amtrak has met with stakeholders across the U.S. – state officials, mayors, businesses, and others – to identify their local needs and expectations," Amtrak said when they originally released the plan. "Our vision incorporates this input and we will work in partnership with stakeholders to grow and improve passenger rail."
Both Manheimer and Saffo are members of Rail Response, a project of the N.C. Metro Mayors Coalition.
The extension of service to Asheville would offer our residents a chance to enjoy the opportunities to travel to other cities in our region and across the state, improving quality of life and offering a mode of travel that reduces carbon emissions," Manheimer wrote. "It would also offer the ability to bring travelers here whether for work, education, visit friends and family, or a weekend or day trip. And they could do so using a more economical and climate friendly form of transportation.
"Back in May, our city council approved a resolution in support of the NC Department of Transportation’s application to have the proposed Wilmington-to-Raleigh route be included in a federal Corridor Identification and Development Program," Saffo explained. "If approved, it would designate $500,000 in federal funding for planning for the route."
To succeed, Amtrak said it needs increased federal funding, expanded access to existing infrastructure (including tracks owned by freight companies such as Norfolk Southern), and new enforcement to ensure passenger trains receive priority over freight traffic.
Funding is expected to largely come from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which includes $66 billion for passenger and freight rail infrastructure investment, according to the mayors.
A recent meeting in Wilmington, and one happening Wednesday in Asheville, are expected to gauge public interest in the proposal and explore grants that could help secure funding. (The meeting on Wednesday is at 11 a.m. at the DoubleTree Hotel, located at 199 Haywood Street.)
In the years since the initial Amtrak proposal, changes have already increased access to Amtrak in the Carolinas.
In July, the NCDOT and Amtrak added an additional roundtrip passenger train to its existing service between Charlotte and Raleigh with stops in Cary, Durham, Burlington, Greensboro, High Point, Salisbury and Kannapolis.
In 2022, the NCDOT tested the rail infrastructure at the site of Charlotte's future Amtrak station. Once the station opens in the years ahead, Charlotte's Amtrak service will relocate from the aging station on North Tryon Street to this new Gateway Station, which is located directly within Uptown Charlotte with direct transfers to the city's CityLYNX Gold Line, bus routes, and other local transit.
"We want to partner with communities like Charlotte," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in an interview with WCNC Charlotte's Ben Thompson for the Sunday morning public affairs show Flashpoint.
"It's music to my ears when you talk about a multi-modal approach," Buttigieg said. "We need to make sure residents have as many options as possible."