When most Surry Countians think about how to get from Point A to Point B, motorized vehicular travel comes to mind — with riding a bicycle or walking other options — but there also is interest in light rail transportation.
“I would love to see that happen,” Joe Zalescik, a former city commissioner, said during a recent public hearing before the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners on the Regional Comprehensive Transportation Plan unveiled by the N.C. Department of Transportation.
Its long-range transportation outlook affects Surry, Davie and Yadkin counties, containing projects deemed to be needed in that area over the next 25 to 30 years.
While there is much emphasis in the plan on roadway projects, along with bike paths and more pedestrian-friendly facilities, there also is mention of light rail transportation, which Zalescik believes “would be a fantastic idea.”
Light rail refers to an alternative mode of travel which operates on fixed rails — with its name referring to a lighter passenger capacity involved compared to large rail systems such as rapid-transit subways. Light rail systems sometimes are likened to trolleys.
“Most of the rail lines are in existence,” Zalescik said of facilities already in place between Mount Airy, Winston-Salem and Rural Hall which would be needed for light rail transportation.
That system would share tracks with freight trains, he added.
“It’s a regional system — it’s not just a Surry County solution,” Zalescik commented regarding the scope that would be involved.
Another public hearing speaker at the Sept. 7 commissioners meeting addressed the concept in a similar vein.
“I caught wind of light rail in the transportation plan,” said Dan Hornak, a resident of Slate Road, who expressed knowledge about that particular transportation mode.
“The thing about light rail is it takes a lot of planning,” added Hornak, who mentioned one possible resource for this, a man living about 20 miles away from Mount Airy whom he considers an expert on the subject.
That individual, Ken Pippen, is a former railroad owner whose also initiated a light rail system in the Baltimore area, city officials were told.
“This man is one person who has gotten it done,” Hornak said of developing such a plan, indicating that Pippen could be a go-to guy for it being pursued locally.
“That’s very helpful,” Mayor Jon Cawley said in response to Hornak’s suggestion.
During his time at the podium, Zalescik said that if long-range transportation goals include reducing the number of vehicles on roadways “with one person in them,” light rail might be an option.
“It costs money and what are the priorities?” the former commissioner said of the considerations involved in implementing transportation projects.
An elephant in the room during the recent public hearing was the fact that Surry County previously participated in a regional bus system through the PART (Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation) organization, for which rides ended last summer. Low participation was cited despite cheap bus fares.
This begs the question of whether a light rail system would have a similar fate, given the fact many motorists don’t want to lose their independence.
Zalescik said the transportation industry is undergoing many changes, and who knows what the future will hold.
“I thought we were supposed to have flying cars by now,” he said of predictions made long ago.
John Pritchard, another person who spoke, urged proceeding with caution on the light rail idea, using an old railroad saying in making his point — the danger of touching “the third rail” carrying high voltage.
Touching it equates with death, Pritchard said of a philosophy also applied to politicians who raise certain unpopular subjects.
He also took aim at one part of the plan which calls for more sidewalks along the Rockford Street business corridor.
Pritchard says this is a by-product of constant complaints about the lack of walkways to aid a supposedly high number of pedestrians who want to walk from Hampton Inn there to the downtown area.
“I would place that at one-tenth of one percent of our visitors, if that,” he countered.
For one thing, this requires great physical stamina, along with the high cost the sidewalks would pose coupled with the overall dangers of walking such a distance, in Pritchard’s skeptical view.
He also reminded that although such projects are in the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Regional Comprehensive Transportation Plan, city officials have a say-so in what’s actually done.
This was evidenced by the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners voting unanimously to adopt that plan at its recent meeting, an action that had been requested by the DOT.
Pritchard says his understanding is that local officials can still pick and choose what work ultimately occurs, which “I don’t doubt is true.”