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Clearing the Way

The closing of a five mile stretch of railroad track between Gastonia and Dallas could help open up a congested interchange and help spur business along a three county corridor. The Norfolk Southern rail line that runs parallel to U.S. 321 in Gastonia will be abandoned on or about August 20, railroad officials announced Thursday. The news came as a surprise to city officials, who knew the railroad company was exploring abandoning the line but didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. Without an active rail line in the way, city and state traffic engineers can begin looking at redesigning the U.S. 321/I-85 interchange to help alleviate congestion there, particularly during morning and evening rush hours. Others say opening that interchange could spur development on the U.S. 321 corridor that runs 30 miles north to Hickory and Interstate 40. “It really gives us the opportunity to do some redesign,” said Gastonia city traffic engineer Don Lowe. Lowe said the city would prefer a diamond-shaped interchange rather than the half-cloverleaf interchange that’s there now. A feasibility study for interchange improvement is under way and included on the state’s 2004-2010 Transportation Improvement Plan, Lowe said. But it’s still unclear what the timeframe would be after the nine to twelve month study is completed. Federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality – CMAQ – money was used to help fund a turn-lane extension at the interchange that was completed this spring. Lowe said the turn-lane expansion has helped some, but more work is needed. Members of the Gastonia City Council cited congestion at the interchange in March when voting against a proposal to add U.S. 321 to the National Tractor Trailer Network – a system of roads approved for use by double and extended length trailers. Hickory City Council approved the use of double trailers on U.S. 321 in October 2002. Lincolnton officials held off on voting while it waited to see what Gastonia decided to do. All three cities needed to approve the plan for it to be accepted. Trucking officials say access to U.S. 321 would save them money and be safer than having to use interstates to make an alternative route. Double and extended length trailers are permitted on U.S. 321 north of Hickory. Jeff Luther, a division manager with Fort Worth Carrier in Salisbury, initiated the N.C. Department of Transportation’s application to add the road to the network. Luther said his trucks, which serve businesses in Gastonia and Hickory, are forced to drive on Interstates 85,77 and 40, around the east side of Lake Norman, rather than using U.S. 321, a direct link between the cities. Traffic congestion and construction on I-85 and I-77 make those roads more dangerous for drivers in commercial and private vehicles, Luther said. Some economic development advocates said adding the thoroughfare to the National Truck Network is something that needs to be taken care of in the future to help development in each of the three counties the road travels through. “The Interconnector,” an economic development group of Gaston, Lincoln and Catawba county officials, has been marketing U.S. 321 in state trade publications for almost two years. “It was about raising visibility last year,” said Barry Matherly, executive director of Lincoln Economic Development Association. “Up and down the corridor there are literally thousands of acres available for development.” All three counties have industrial sites on U.S. 321 that are denoted a prime development locations by the state, Matherly said. And all three counties were already competing for economic development along the corridor, so they decided to combine their resources and work together to try and bring new businesses to the area. Hickory Mayor G. Rudy Wright Jr. said his community has seen more residential growth recently along U.S. 321 between Lincolnton and Hickory. Commuters to Charlotte have about a 50 minute drive, Wright said, and peripheral businesses in and around his community continue to grow to serve the families that work elsewhere. “We are the service center for health care, retail and banking for several hundred thousand people,” Wright said. “I think a lot of people don’t understand that’s so.”