Shuttling in the future


What if the days of the historic Wilmington to Wrightsville Beach trolley line were not the past but the future? What if a passenger could board a light rail car at the foot of Market Street and be whisked to the beach in a fraction of the time it takes for a vehicle to travel? Is this system of transportation a real possibility for Wilmington in the near future? Probably not, but when looking at a rendering of a modern rail car stopping by the historic trolley station near the intersection of Park Avenue and Audubon Boulevard, one cannot help but wonder.

The rendering was part of the City of Wilmington’s future visions campaign during which six different alternative future visions for the city were created out of input from numerous public neighborhood meetings. The restored trolley was included in the future vision that focused on transportation-based development by creating better interconnectivity between different land uses like commercial, residential and parks. 

While the idea of recreating the old trolley line is a good conversation piece, Wilmington Metropolitan Planning Organization associate transportation planner Suraiya Rashid said it is something Wilmington is not ready for. 

“I think it is something that people throw out a lot. … We own most of the right of way along Park Avenue, but a lot of that has been used for drainage and we actually have one of our main bike paths through town there,” Rashid said. “It would be very, very expensive and we would really have to show the densities to support it.”

The nearest city with a light rail system within its metropolitan center is Charlotte, a city with a population more than seven times Wilmington’s. 

However, like the River to Sea Bike Trail that now connects downtown to the beach along the historic trolley line, Rashid said one of the key factors in increasing connectivity in the region moving forward will be bike and pedestrian pathways that also support the public WAVE Transit bus system. 

“From my perspective, one of the most important things we need to do to get to that transportation-oriented development is to have the pedestrian network at a state to entice people to be comfortable just riding the bus,” she said. “WAVE Transit is doing an excellent job with their mission and ridership is growing every year. … The best thing we can do to support them is improve the pedestrian network.”

While she agreed establishing a light rail system within the city would be a long way off, City of Wilmington senior planner Christine Hughes believed the region has other ways to improve interconnectivity where citizens live, work and play. 

“I think we have a real opportunity with some of our corridors to improve the connection between transportation and land use like on College Road and Market Street,” Hughes said. “Just as an example, if we had a rapid bus on Market Street and created population centers along Market Street where the bus could stop three or four times instead of 10 to 12 times, I think that is a great opportunity and I think something like that is totally feasible.”

Like many other cities, Hughes said the expansion of Wilmington post World War II was solely focused on automobile transportation and the suburban lifestyle. Now, with more Millennials and Baby Boomers calling for better interconnectivity and easily accessible amenities, Hughes said the city could be witnessing the start of another lifestyle shift. 

“That preference for a suburban lifestyle took a long time to come to fruition so the shift away from that is going to take a long time also, and we are just seeing the beginning of it,” she said. 

Regardless of when it happens, Hughes said tying transportation and land use policies together can have numerous benefits like better public health, freedom of mobility and more attractive population centers with higher property values. 

“In other communities where this shift has been more forward and more progressive, you see property values rise around transit stops, which can be a little of a double-edged sword because you don’t want to gentrify areas and push out folks that need more affordable housing options,” Hughes said. “In other areas where this is already happening, the real estate and development communities understand the values of these things.”

For city and regional planners measuring the public’s support of more interconnectivity via public transportation, and bike and pedestrian pathways while tying it to the region’s densification is going to be a primary issue moving into the future, Hughes said. 

“If we made appropriate increases to density, we could be less reliant on single occupancy vehicles, which would help our community immensely with traffic congestion, air quality and even with aesthetics in our built environment,” she said. “Wilmington is built out so right now everything is in someone’s backyard and we are going to have to manage that change.”

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