By Richard Sullins |

It was 148 years ago when two railroad lines crossed in central North Carolina and a town was born and named for C.O. Sanford, the first civil engineer to work on the tracks that formed the crossroads. Trains still come through the city every day, but these days, freight is all they pick up or drop off.

But now, 51 years after the last passenger rail train departed from Sanford’s depot in 1971, the day when commuters may once again ride the rails to and from a new Sanford depot has come an important step closer.

City leaders have believed for the past couple of years that a proposed new downtown train station could become the lynchpin of a revitalization effort that is picking up steam, one that could spread from the center of the city outwards to lift up distressed communities as part of the process.

Sanford Mayor Chet Mann and several members of the city council hosted a meeting of the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Transit-Oriented Development Advisory Committee at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center on March 23, a gathering that saw state executives and municipal officials from Norlina in Warren County through Sanford and as far south as Richmond near the South Carolina line come together to get an update on when the trains might roll again.

The meeting was called to discuss the so-called “S-Line” project, seen by NCDOT as the critical link in helping to streamline the moving of passengers and freight over the next quarter of a century. By the year 2050, the number of vehicles traveling daily on U.S. 1 between Raleigh and Sanford is expected to grow by 10 times the number on the road today as new industries bring more jobs and the outflow of people from the Triangle looking to escape congestion there continues to accelerate.

That kind of traffic will make road replacements necessary sooner and at higher costs and increasing numbers of traffic accidents will slow down the flow of automobiles between the two cities. Finding a place to park all those cars could become a nightmare almost beyond imagination.

Those factors brought city leaders to the table when DOT first began discussing the possibility of “multimodal” transportation some five years ago. The term refers to more than one means of transportation through a variety of existing or future sources, from regional bus services to passenger and freight rail to Amtrak passenger service to even rentals of electric vehicles, bikes, and scooters.

Deputy Secretary of Multimodal Transportation Julie White and other DOT officials met with around 50 people who attended the session to give an update on the progress being made to obtain federal and state grants that would provide funding to make the dream of a passenger and freight rail system into a reality along the S-Line, and to hear ideas from local representatives on needs that a new system of transportation might be able to address.

Mann told the DOT representatives “Sanford’s downtown has been seeing a resurgence and it’s becoming a place where people want to go. It’s a place where people want to preserve their old buildings that link them to their heritage, but also where they want to come when they expect to see cool things. One of the goals we as a council have talked about would be for Sanford to link to this S-Line project to eventually help unify the city in ways that haven’t been done before.”

Mann explained the aim of the city’s initiative is to get people to come to the downtown area, whether it’s locals who come for a couple of hours or visitors who drive in for a day or maybe a weekend.

With all the previously empty buildings now having new tenants or being repurposed for new uses, Mann said there will be many more reasons for visitors to come and spend extended hours in the downtown as new restaurants and boutiques that are opening offer the kind of choices that will make Sanford even more attractive.

For example, a vacant building with frontage along North First Street has the potential to serve as a multimodal train station for the new S-Line if it becomes a reality, city officials told the DOT planners. The building, which has more than 300,000 square feet in available space, is getting a new roof that will cost more than $1 million and the owner has shown interest in potentially making up to a third of the building’s footprint available to the city for a new commuter rail station.

It’s the location of the property that gives the concept its real selling point. Not only is it located near existing rail tracks that are within a block of the downtown area, but it’s also adjacent to the boundary with East Sanford, the neighborhood of the city that is growing twice as fast as any other and that is ripe for redevelopment, one that has been identified as a food desert and in need of greater access to essential services such as pharmacies, gas stations, and restaurants.

Council member and mayoral candidate Rebecca Wyhof Salmon told the planners “the idea for stream restoration of Little Buffalo Creek (near the building) could be a starting point for linking downtown with the east, a place to launch off in reaching out to distressed neighborhoods like East Sanford where the future is going to come out of.”

Salmon’s fellow council member and opponent in the mayor’s race, Sam Gaskins, has much the same vision for downtown and East Sanford.

“That part of the city already has in place a great sidewalk system and bike lanes, and what we ultimately want to get to is having folks see both East Sanford and downtown as places for multimodal transportation, with lots of bikes where people can rent and alternate forms of transportation like electric automobiles and scooters that visitors can rent as well that will take them that last mile of their journey within the city,” he said.

Jason Orthner, DOT’s Rail Division director, said the goal of the S-Line is to expand and improve passenger and freight services in the southeastern United States by connecting manufacturing and job locations to centers of populations. Through federal and state grants, DOT is purchasing rail lines owned by CSX from the Virginia state line to Raleigh to be converted from freight to passenger use.

Currently, from Raleigh to Richmond, trains carrying both passengers and freight can use the S-Line tracks at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. From Raleigh north to Norlina, trains are limited to 25 miles per hour while carrying only local freight. From Norlina to Petersburg, Virginia, major challenges exist because the line went out-of-service when the tracks were removed years ago. Virginia has acquired 350 miles of railroad right-of-way and 225 miles of track for the line.

The DOT planning process has reached the halfway point and should be completed by December of this year. Appearing at a number of public and business gatherings since August of 2021, they have collected information on the values that communities consider to be of greatest importance. The 3 values that were most often cited by residents and businesspeople in Sanford were providing new transportation options within the region, preserving rural and natural areas, and supporting new and existing small businesses.

Deputy Secretary White said that more grant applications are pending and approvals have been requested, but more remains to be done. In Sanford, available parking remains a problem yet to be solved.

Convincing the public to come downtown to take the train to Raleigh and beyond, or to make use of other alternative forms of transportation, is a major hurdle in itself. But the city currently has no parking facilities capable of housing the large number of cars expected to make use of the Sanford station. Whether it’s in the form of a large lot or a parking garage, property will have to be obtained and facilities constructed and before either of those can happen, funding will have to be obtained.

But city leaders remain optimistic that the S-Line could be the ticket they’ve been looking for to further unite the city’s neighborhoods and make the whole of them stronger.

“What we want to do is to continue lifting this community up and the catalyst for that effort could be this project,” Mann said.

Councilman and Mayor Pro Tempore Byron Buckels believes much of the heavy lifting for connecting downtown to the S-Line has already been done.

“Our walkways and bikeways in several neighborhoods are already connected to downtown and they will be able to connect to all of this,” he said. “Our next step must be in finding a way to help people visualize how to use this system of next generation transportation we are creating and teach them to use alternate means of getting from place to place, and that could include things we haven’t talked about so far, like scooters, bikes, and other alternatives to using an automobile.”

Like it or not, Sanford’s growth curve is about to head into the stratosphere. Better buckle up.