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Harrisburg: The Price of Progress

Aug 01, 2016 08:30AM ● Published by Jason Huddle

Harrisburg: The Price of Progress

The town of Harrisburg has been riding out infrastructure upgrades geared toward high-speed rail. It’s been a long, bumpy trip, but an end is in sight.

At a cost of $831 billion to be utilized between 2009 and 2019, The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – or the Stimulus Act – was signed into law by President Obama to help create jobs by investing in American communities during the recession.

According to Wikipedia, “The North Carolina Railroad is a 317-mile state-owned rail corridor extending from Morehead City, North Carolina, to Charlotte, North Carolina. The railroad carries over 70 freight trains offered by the Norfolk Southern Railway and eight passenger trains (Amtrak’s Carolinian and Piedmont) daily. It is managed by the North Carolina Railroad Company.”

In 2010, the Federal Railroad Administration awarded a $546.5-million grant to North Carolina from the Stimulus Act. Additionally, the federal government included $8 billion in its 2012 budget just for high-speed rail improvement and expansion.

Enter the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), which initiated its Piedmont Improvement Program (PIP); $520 million of the Federal Railroad Administration grant was directly earmarked for it. Besides accommodating more rail service and helping promote development in its wake, the plan focuses on constructing new, safer bridges over existing rail crossings at street level and improving roadways impacted.

For example, the railroad crossing at Pharr Mill Road that saw an Amtrak/tractor trailer accident in 2009 has been closed. In its place is a new bridge that stretches across both Highway 49 and the train tracks.

According to the NCDOT, rail travel between Charlotte and Greensboro is the busiest in the state; this includes both freight trains and high-speed Amtrak. Harrisburg’s leg of the $95-million project,

which is seeing the grading of new railroad foundation and the installation of a second set of tracks, will allow trains to run like a two-way street. The 12 miles extend from Orr Road in Mecklenburg County to just north of Harrisburg.

The NCDOT outlines features of the project as:

• Adding 12 new bridges that will carry roadways over or under railroad tracks to separate traffic from trains and improve safety for motorists;

• Adding 31 miles of parallel – or second track – and passing sidings to help freight and passenger trains move in a more reliable and timely manner;

• Adding 12 miles of new highway construction;

• Closing 23 public and 15 private railroad crossings to eliminate the potential for train and vehicle collisions;

• Adding two daily passenger-train roundtrips between Raleigh and Charlotte with seven stops in between;

• Renovating train stations in Kannapolis, Cary, High Point and Burlington;

• Refurbishing and adding passenger rail cars to the fleet.

Harrisburg Mayor Steve Sciascia has been in office since December 2013. Prior to that, he served on the Harrisburg Town Council for eight years. Having lived in Harrisburg since 1999, he’s seen the growth impacting the town – welcomed or not.

“NCDOT reached out to us shortly after the funding (for PIP) was approved,” he says. “They held several town meetings that were met with lots of questions and opposition.”

That’s because Harrisburg had no input into PIP, although the NCDOT has updated the Harrisburg Town Council directly every other month at council meetings for about the last two years, allotting time for a Public Comment segment.

“The original plan only included bridges for two of five crossings,” Mayor Sciascia explains. “The plan was to shut down the other three. We created a committee to continue the dialogue with NCDOT, which led to the creation of a third bridge (Roberta Road), which happens to be in the center of town. In addition, that extra bridge started out as a two-lane without sidewalks to a four-lane with sidewalks. This was a crucial addition for Harrisburg; without it we would have cut the town in half and likely jeopardized the viability of many businesses.

“The Caldwell Road closure caused the most pain due to the number of businesses in an industrial park as well as the residential houses. That road was closed for almost two years. Pharr Mill was closed for over a year.”

 The Caldwell Road and Pharr Mill Road bridges have replaced railroad crossings and are open. “The Harrisburg Veterans Bridge (Roberta Road) opening will close Robinson Church and already closed Hickory Ridge at the start of the project,” the mayor adds.

As with so many large enterprises of this kind, homeowners are also negatively affected. “Initial discussions showed more than five houses being demolished, but NCDOT worked hard to change their plans and only a few were impacted,” Mayor Sciascia says.

“And in the early stages of the project, Harrisburg only had one crossing open to traffic (Robinson Church Road). This created a traffic nightmare and required police officers to direct traffic at multiple intersections of our only open road. Each stage of the construction made it difficult to get to the center of town, forcing residents to shop elsewhere and our local businesses to lose money. The tracks split Harrisburg in half today; the road closure literally cut us in half.”

While the majority of the project that affects Harrisburg residents most directly is complete, the caveat for the NCDOT is the lifespan of the stimulus money. It’s scheduled to run out at the end of this year, so the pressure is on. Otherwise the state would have to complete the project on its own dime.

What is left to be completed are the School Road/Roberta Road Extension that will end at Stallings Road.0 At this point, that roadway – including that end of School Circle – is closed to traffic from Highway 49 to where it ends at Stallings Road. Blythe Construction hopes to open the new bridge this fall. What will follow will hopefully be some normalcy for those living and working in Harrisburg. The new normal, however, is continued development.

“The biggest benefit to Harrisburg is no longer being stopped by the train at rail crossings due to the new bridges,” Mayor Sciascia says. “Some homes obviously already experienced the sound of the trains. As a result of the bridges, the trains will not have to blow their whistles at each crossing, which would reduce the noise.”

Photos by: Michael A. Anderson Photography

Article by: Kim Cassell

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In Print, Community Harrisburg NCDOT Amtrak High Speed Rail Mayor Steve Sciascia American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Stimulus Act
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