A new report breaks down the impact of North Carolina’s rail system on the state’s economy. The North Carolina Department of Transportation study, produced in partnership with the Institute for Transportation Research and Education, looks at annual contributions from rail sectors including freight, tourism, and construction. All told, the industry contributes a $20 billion bump to statewide economic output, close to another billion in related tax revenue, and supports roughly 90,000 jobs.  

NCDOT Rail Division Director Jason Orthner predicts that those economic indicators will continue to rise as will the numbers of passengers who choose rail for travel.

"You know, adding important destinations like western North Carolina, Salisbury west to Asheville, or eastern North Carolina, Johnston County, all the way down to Wilmington," he says. "Winston-Salem — our largest urbanized area without a direct passenger rail service — we see those as opportunities for significant increase in ridership as we grow the system."

Orthner says with the current funding and the recent bipartisan infrastructure law, he and his colleagues are moving as fast as they can. But he cautions that developing new transportation systems takes time — on average 7 to 12 years from concept to completion. There are land acquisition negotiations, environmental and community concerns, and infrastructure demands, plus every project utilizes carefully prescribed public money.

Wake Forest University Associate Teaching Professor Todd McFall says it's money well spent from both an economic and environmental perspective.

"There’s literally no way we have right now of transporting goods across land that has a lower carbon footprint than trains," says McFall. "So, the extent to which we can use trains to our advantage will be good in terms of environmental protections so long as we maintain safety standards that are going to stop things from spilling or contaminating waterways or agricultural areas."

McFall points to the study’s findings that show rail’s ability to haul nearly 500 tons of freight with one gallon of fuel from North Carolina industries through to state and regional ports. That’s about three to four times more efficient than long-haul trucking.

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