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Wednesday October 5th

The light rail might be gone, but a train could still be coming to Orange County

<p>A satellite image of Hillsborough shows the parcel of land where the Hillsborough Amtrak extension could be located. Photo courtesy of the Hillsborough Planning Department.</p>
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A satellite image of Hillsborough shows the parcel of land where the Hillsborough Amtrak extension could be located. Photo courtesy of the Hillsborough Planning Department.

Though the light rail may be dead, not all is finished with transit development in Orange County. With state funding secured, Hillsborough is beginning to progress its plans for its own train station — aiming to expand local access to regional transportation. 

Hillsborough sits in the center of Orange County, roughly equidistant from Amtrak train stations offering passenger services in Burlington and Durham. According to Town Planning Director Margaret Hauth, the train station has been an object of discussion for almost 10 years, but in recent years, the town has secured $8.1 million in funding from the N.C. Department of Transportation, from the Orange County transit tax and from the town itself.

“(The funding) is still under development because there is some interest in doing some improvements to the rail lines,” Hauth said.

Hauth said due to a curve in the rail lines, the North Carolina Railroad (NCRR) would like to adjust the rail alongside any construction for the station itself. She said she thinks the amount of funding will increase as curve realignment plans are added to the discussion.

NCRR owns the tracks around which the station would be built, and it has partnered with Amtrak and Norfolk Southern to operate passenger services and freight transportation, respectively, along the statewide corridor. Amtrak would offer two passenger routes providing daily routes between Charlotte, Raleigh and New York City. 

In 2008, Hillsborough acquired a 20-acre parcel of land south of downtown in anticipation of the station, although Hauth said the station is only intended to use five to seven acres of the property. The rest, she said, exists as an economic development tool the town can either use in the future or sell. 

Although it is not required by the state funding agreement, the town plans to conduct a initial environmental review of the acreage intended for the station. Hauth said it is a part of commercial due-diligence that will make the property more attractive in the development community. The town plans to establish a public-private partnership to draw in private developers who will contribute to the project.

Hillsborough Town Commissioner Kathleen Ferguson said she sees the train station as a resource that will promote growth for the town.

“We expect it to be an economic engine. We expect it to be a focal point for tourism. We expect it to be a focal point for Town,” she said.

She said the station will be a valuable resource for residents to travel without having to use their cars, but she also said she hopes to see the train station as a way to draw visitors to Hillsborough by showcasing art and attracting visitors to local businesses.

Ferguson was involved in discussion of the train station even before she won a seat on the board in 2013. In all her involvement, she said she has consistently heard widespread support for the station.

“I think that there’s no such thing as 100 percent, but I feel safe in that every comment that has been shared with me personally — and certainly in the meetings that I attended before I ever was elected — there was quite a bit of support,” she said.

Ferguson said the board’s role during the project will largely be to approve contracts and provide general direction to the staff who work alongside Hauth, but she looks forward to seeing the project’s progress. 

“I’m very excited about the station,” she said. “I think communities that have stations benefit in many different ways. I’m looking forward to when I can hop on a train in Hillsborough and do my travel on Amtrak.”


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