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City awaits final word for access road to Oxford Heights over tracks

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City officials are seeking permission for a new entrance to Oxford Heights with a new public road over railroad tracks running by the subdivision.

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By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Elizabeth City is still trying to convince railroad operators to allow a new access road into the Oxford Heights neighborhood. Failing that, the city will have to build a new bridge that is likely to flood easily.

City Manager Rich Olson updated the city council on Oxford Heights during the city council meeting last Monday. Genessee and Wyoming Railroad Services shot down the city's first proposal to build an access road running north from the intersection of Bonner and Lexington Drives; a northern road into Oxford Heights would require a railroad crossing.

Now the city is trying to convince Kenneth Whisenant, of Coastal Region Companies, to grant an easement for another route, but it's unclear if he'll support it, Olson said.

This issue with access into Oxford Heights started almost a year ago, when a structural analysis found the Oxford Heights bridge is too old and too dilapidated to repair. Weight restrictions remain on vehicles crossing the bridge, though Olson has stopped short of calling it unsafe. The bridge enters Oxford Heights from the south, off U.S. Highway 17, and runs across a low-lying area, and over part of Knobbs Creek. It is the only regular access into the neighborhood of about 105 homes, according to the city's project engineer.

The city has about $750,000 to replace the bridge, counting local funds and a $250,000 grant won last year, but replacing the bridge is not an ideal solution, Olson has explained. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will not allow a new bridge to be any higher than the current bridge, so it would be just as flood-prone as the old bridge. The concern is that elevating the bridge could effectively create a dam that could worsen flooding at Morgan Pointe apartments or other nearby areas, Olson explained Monday.

An access road would be along a higher part of Oxford Heights, and so should be less vulnerable to flooding, according to city officials. The city has to work with three railroads to convince them to grant the crossing the road would need, however.

The city's engineering firm, Eastern Carolina Engineering, further explained the issue in a letter sent to Whisenant and provided to councilors. After a meeting with Genessee and Wyoming in July, railroad officials ruled out the Bonnie-Lexington route because it was to close to switch gear for the track.

Now, the city is looking at four other designs for the crossing, including an access road branching off of Sanford Drive to the west of Bonnie and Lexington. The city is in property negotiations with the owner of 1804 Sanford Drive and Carolina Telephone, the latter of which owns property north of the railroad tracks.

In urging Whisenant grant the easement, Eastern Carolina notes rail crossings “are not granted lightly,” but stresses the city has exhausted other options and doesn't consider replacing the bridge to be the best use of public dollars.

On Monday, Olson told councilors Whisenant originally refused the city's request, but is considering the letter and asked for more information.

If the railroad refuses, Olson also said he would recommend proceeding with the bridge.

Oxford Heights is in the Second Ward, represented by Councilors Gabriel Adkins and Anita Hummer. Adkins requested the update on the bridge, and told Olson Monday he's concerned about potholes on the bridge. Some are so bad they're like hitting speed bumps, he said.

Olson said the city is concerned that filling the potholes would add weight to the bridge and shorten its lifespan even further. He said public works would look at the problem, however.

Hummer also asked why it's taking so long to address the bridge; the letter to Whisenant was sent in November, she noted. Olson reiterated the railroad's reluctance to grant the crossing, but said the city was working “back channels” with state officials to try to get a favorable outcome faster. The city will take the problem up to the governor's office if needed, he said.

Councilor Billy Caudle asked if the city could appeal the U.S. Army Corps' decision that the new bridge couldn't be elevated – allowing it to be built higher and at less risk of flooding. Olson said that appeal is long process. He also noted that nearby areas are even lower the bridge, meaning access to the bridge could be cut off even if it doesn't flood.

Notably, there is a back gate in and out of Oxford Heights that connects to the southbound lanes of Halstead Boulevard Extended. Making the back gate a primary entrance is not a viable option for several reasons, including the bend in the road there and the divided highway, Olson said in a followup interview. It is opened only in emergencies, and under N.C. Department of Transportation supervision, he explained.

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