Waynesville’s wish of tourist railway derailed out of the gate

Since the advent of the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, tourists flocking to Bryson City and Dillsboro to ride the scenic passenger train have been the envy of neighboring communities.

Jackson urged to vet all options before dishing out railroad grant

A group of Jackson County residents have been making the rounds in recent weeks asking decision makers to think twice before forking over $750,000 to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad in hopes of increasing tourism.

Landslide protocol: a muddied affair

coverThe tragic death of a railroad worker investigating a fresh landslide along a rail line last week highlighted the hidden, yet inherent, risks for workers who are first on the scene in the aftermath of a slide. 

Joseph Drewnoski, 33, of Waynesville, was buried and killed by a landslide in the middle of the night while surveying tracks for storm damage near Black Mountain following a weekend of unrelenting rains. Norfolk Southern Railway got a report of a landslide on the tracks in the middle of the night and sent Drewnoski and another worker to check it out.

Waynesville gets on board rail movement for passengers and freight

Last week, Waynesville’s town board linked up with a growing grassroots movement that is calling for increased rail capacity.

The town board unanimously passed a resolution to support a move to rail service in North Carolina.

“To me, it’s just an obvious thing,” said Alderman LeRoy Roberson. “A railroad system is going to be the way for freight to be moved. It far outstrips the economy that you’re going to find with trucking.”

While the resolution doesn’t lead to any immediate action, Waynesville has joined 120 entities across the state that have urged expansion of freight train service in North Carolina.

For Roberson and many others, the benefits of rail include better fuel efficiency and more independence from foreign oil.

“I can’t imagine any group right now that’s going to oppose that,” said Roberson, adding that rapid train service would also be far more efficient than building new roads.

The town board supported the increasing use of both freight and passenger trains. But Roberson acknowledges that passenger trains won’t be crisscrossing Western North Carolina any time soon.

“That’s not going to happen in the near future, but you’ve got to move in that direction,” Roberson said.

For now, the state has plans to bring passenger rail to Asheville — but not further west.

Currently, there are plans for five major intercity passenger service additions in the state, including the Western North Carolina Passenger Rail Service from Asheville to Salisbury. From there, passengers could continue on to Raleigh and beyond.

Budget constraints have held back the expensive multimillion-dollar projects, but progress is ongoing.

“Slow moving, but ongoing,” said N.C. Representative Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, who chairs the House committee dedicated to a comprehensive rail service plan for the state and is a member of the state Transportation Committee.

Rapp said the state’s first priority is to fund high-speed rail through North Carolina that will connect Washington, D.C., to Atlanta. The Salisbury-Asheville line would be a secondary branch off that main line.

According to the WNC Rail Corridor Committee, Asheville is the most frequently requested stop in the country for a new stop on Amtrak, the nation’s largest commuter rail company.

The committee represents the nine locations that are designated as future stops on the rail service from Salisbury to Asheville: Salisbury, Statesville, Hickory, Morganton, Valdese, Marion, Old Fort, Black Mountain and Asheville.

Upgrading a freight line between Salisbury and Asheville might run from $150 to $170 million, Rapp said.

While some of the nine towns have already spent millions on station upgrades, Rapp said Amtrak does not seem to have much interest in the Asheville-Salisbury line.

According to a study done by Wake Forest University, within the third year of operation, the proposed train service would carry only 70,000 passengers annually, below the desired critical mass.

“It really depends on how much we’re willing to subsidize that operation,” said Rapp. “Upgrading track, installing signals, straightening tracks — that’s why that cost figure has continued to rise.”

But local governments are still holding out hope for the ambitious railroad plan.

Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway said he would especially support a passenger rail line linking Asheville to Raleigh.

“The trip from Raleigh, it gets a little old,” said Galloway. “I’d much rather get on a train.”

Roberson pointed that having rail as a transportation option could have cut down the economic impact from the Interstate 40 rockslide.

“You’ve got a road closed until March, losing $1 million a day,” said Roberson.

New leaders to forge future for Dillsboro with or without railroad

Faced with a collapsing tourism marketplace caused by a national recession and the pullout of its featured attraction — the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad –– Dillsboro’s voters elected a new leadership team to steer the town towards an uncertain future.

David Gates, one of the winning candidates, wants the tourist railroad to resume operations in Dillsboro.

“I would like to work real hard to re-establish our relationship with the railroad and try to get them back into Dillsboro. It was our number one draw, and it was a win-win situation,” Gates said.

All five positions on the town board and its mayor’s seat were up for grabs during Tuesday’s election with eight challengers and only one incumbent vying for the spots.

While attracting tourism and increasing its revenue base are the most pressing local issues, Dillsboro has also been at the center of one of Western Carolina’s most contentious environmental fights.

Jackson County is battling Duke Energy in federal court to prevent the Fortune 500 company from tearing down the historic Dillsboro Dam. Depending on who wins the court case, the dam could be taken down by Duke or turned over to the county to be included in a riverfront park development.

Going into the election, most of the candidates said attracting tourism and re-building the town’s economic base were their focus, and, while the dam fight was close to their hearts, its outcome was out of their hands as a result of a stakeholder settlement agreement signed years ago.

The mayoral race pitted local business owners Teresa Dowd and Michael Fitzgerald against one another. Fitzgerald –– who has served as the vice mayor for the past four years –– won election with nearly 75 percent of the vote.

Fitzgerald said a key component in planning for the town’s future will be expanding and formalizing its relationship with Western Carolina University, which is helping the town create a long-term vision and brainstorm on how to boost a local economy slammed by the recession and the train’s departure.

“We don’t have a formal arrangement but we will have someone working with their departmental liaison to look at all the possibilities,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said it was important to harness the university’s resources and ideas before determining the best way forward for the town.

“If a business person were going to open in our town it would be good to see what kind of businesses are likely to succeed beforehand,” Fitzgerald said.

Jimmy Cabe, the only incumbent to run for re-election to the town board, was the leading vote-getter in the race.

Cabe also emphasized the importance of pursuing a partnership with WCU that would benefit the town’s merchants and its residents.

“I’m kind of looking at the partnership with Western benefiting the whole town, not just the merchants,” Cabe said, adding that he hoped the college would help the town develop its use of alternative energy production.

 

Dillsboro
Mayor, 4-year term

Michael Fitzgerald    53

Teresa Dowd    16

 

Town board

Seats up for election:    5

Total seats on board:    5

Jimmy Cabe (I)    57

Tim Parris    56

David Gates    51

K David Jones    50

Joseph Riddle    32

Walter Cook    25

Emma Wertenberger    22

TJ Walker    18

Charles Wise    18

Registered voters:    175

Voter turnout:    26%

Railroad right of way claim could stall business expansion

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

A Dillsboro business owner’s recent attempt to purchase and develop land near the Great Smoky Mountains Railrod tracks has renewed a longstanding debate over railroad right-of-way issues and property owners’ rights.

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