The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Tuesday August 3rd

Column: End of the line long overdue

The train got stuck the other night. The crossing arm at Main Street in Carrboro malfunctioned, and it triggered an automatic warning horn, which blared for more than an hour. This unnerved a lot of people. 

It also served as a reminder that the University still has a coal burning power plant in a residential neighborhood, and it requires a train and ten miles of track to operate. 

The sooner that all comes to an end, the better. 

Every now and again, this community rethinks the arrangement and the inefficiency of it all. The use of resources and the poor use of space and right-of-way just smacks you in the face.
The main obstacle to change is that the University has stubbornly refused to consider something other than operating a power plant. As we all know, Carolina has a problem with monuments. The one honoring the Age of Steam Power on Cameron Avenue is one of them.

It’s been a decade since the University released its 2009 Climate Action Plan, which pledged to end the use of coal by 2020 and make the campus carbon neutral by 2050. The headline on the introductory section of the plan read “A Lot of Little Solutions.” In hindsight, that couldn’t have been more accurate.

For our community, our planet and a brighter future for our children, we need big solutions. The arguments for keeping a power plant and the train line to feed it no longer hold. 
There are reasonable alternatives for generating both electricity and heat, and there are potential uses for both the Cameron Avenue site and the rail right of way that would be transformative. 

Eliminating the rail line eliminates a major constraint on land use and would open up stranded spaces in the towns. The right of way itself could be converted into something that makes a lot more sense than rolling in a half-dozen coal cars a few times a week.

Past ideas have included converting it to commuter rail service, but it’s more likely that it could become a dedicated busway, or a bike and walking trail. The tracks are creaky, so upgrading them for commuter rail would be the most difficult and costly option. When I rode it at the dawn of this century, the train couldn’t travel more than 10 miles per hour. 

There’s never a shortage of ideas in this community, but change is difficult here — partly the result of institutional inertia, but mostly because of a jurisdictional paralysis that prevents the University, the state and local governments from working together. 

Somehow, we have to get past this. We can’t wait for horns blaring in the middle of the night to remind us. That’s no way to run a railroad.

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