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Report Finds Economic, Environmental Impact Of N.C. Railroads

By Audrey Elsberry, posted Feb 29, 2024
The state has 3,416 miles of rail serviced by 26 railroads, 24 short-line railroads and 83 intermodal facilities, according to NCDOT. (File photo)
Intermodal rail facilities, like the one coming to the Port of Wilmington, help the state save millions, according to an N.C. Department of Transportation report released this month.

The state’s ports contribute about $15 billion to North Carolina's economy, and the rail system contributes about $20 billion, according to the report. The relationship between the ports and N.C. railroads helps connect the state’s industries to international markets.

NCDOT’s full report released on Feb. 15 details the contributions of N.C. railroads to the state’s economy. The report found goods from intermodal facilities, which transfer goods from one form of transportation to another like from a ship to a train, account for 18% of the 13 million tons of rail freight that originates in the state.

The state has 3,416 miles of rail serviced by 26 railroads, 24 short-line railroads and 83 intermodal facilities, according to NCDOT. The report was conducted in collaboration with the Institute for Transportation Research and Education at NC State University.

The relationship between the state’s rail system and the two deep-water ports, the Port of Wilmington and Morehead City Port, are vital to the state’s economy, the report states.

The Port of Wilmington is set to get a new intermodal facility, which was announced in June. The terminal was scheduled to break ground last month, however, the project is now expected to break ground by mid-year, according to Elly Cosgrove, N.C. State Ports Authority communications director. The port has completed the environmental and design work for the project but is waiting to get the grant agreement signed, Cosgrove told the Business Journal over email. 

The grant agreement currently sits in the Maritime Administration concurrence process for final approval and port officials expect to have the signed grant agreement by May 2024, according to Cosgrove. The facility is expected to divert more than 250,000 container boxes from trucks to rail over the next 10 years, she added, and could expand the port's intermodal rail capacity to more than 50,000 container movements by rail annually.

More rail upgrades at the Port of Wilmington are to be expected after NCDOT announced in December it would grant $2.8 million in state funding to the port for rail upgrades. The Wilmington Terminal Railroad was also slated to receive $600,000 in upgrades.

Rail has a smaller carbon footprint than trucking transportation, according to the American Association of Railroads (AAR), and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75%. Hundreds of trucks would be required to transport the cargo of just one freight train, according to the AAR.

If the state’s freight train cargo were instead transported by truck, it would lead to an estimated $1.9 million in emissions cost, according to the report and findings from the North Carolina Statewide Multimodal Freight Plan. Freight diversion to trucks would also add an estimated $2.6 million in pavement costs.
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