An almost two decade-old project to expand high-speed rail out of Raleigh got a half-billion-dollar boost from the federal government last month.
As part of an $8 billion infusion of high-speed rail funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, North Carolina will receive $520 million for a number of projects to improve the route running from Raleigh to Charlotte.
“It will be the main street for future generations connecting Raleigh with Charlotte and points in between,” Patrick Simmons, director of the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Rail Division, said.
The federal money – along with more than $36 million from other federal, state and railroad sources – will pay for about 30 projects aimed at providing more reliable, frequent service. Simmons said that includes the construction of an additional line from Greensboro to Charlotte, the purchase of more trains and the improvement of the track itself.
About every two-and-a-half hours during daylight, you will have the chance to take the train,” he said, noting that the plans will double the trains’ frequency.
The projects will also result in a modest upgrade in speed, bumping the average velocity of 54 mph to a top speed of 90 mph. That’s not exactly the definition of a lightning-fast train of the future – steam locomotives were reaching in excess of those speeds in the 1890s. But Simmons points out that technical complications and policy restrictions mean higher speeds aren’t necessarily feasible.
“We’ve heard folks express disappointment that they weren’t going to get to ride the bullet train. Well, factually, we can’t really use 300 mph between Raleigh and Cary,” Simmons said. “It’s finding the sweet spot between capital investment and the resulting projection in ridership increases.”
More than speed, the ultimate goal is to reduce the 3 hour, 7 minute travel time between Raleigh, Charlotte and points in between. Simmons said their ultimate target is a 2 hour, 15 minute commute.
“It has a lot less to do with the top speed and a lot more to do with reducing or eliminating the areas where you go slowly,” he said.
The Raleigh to Charlotte route is just one piece of the Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor, a 500-mile stretch of rail line between Charlotte and Washington, D.C. Since the federal government designated the corridor in 1992, North Carolina has spent $300 million on studies and infrastructure to pave the way for high-speed rail.
Simmons said that investment, coupled with complex relationships fostered between railroads and local transit authorities, are the reasons North Carolina won out over other states like South Carolina and Georgia, which received no federal money.
But according to Chris Hayes, senior legislative analyst with conservative think tank Civitas, a real return on investment would be more significant benefits to travelers in North Carolina – benefits he says rail doesn’t provide.
“You don’t have that much commuting traffic going back and forth from Raleigh to Charlotte to really see those types of big increases yet. Where you do see it is on the highways,” Hayes said. “To increase the rail speed by 10 or 20 mph that this project’s going to do is not going to deliver the return on investment.”
Hayes says that given ridership figures for rail, any cost-benefit analysis comes out in favor of investing in the more heavily used highways around the state.
“When you have major bottlenecks on I-85 that could be addressed, this seems to be chasing this dream of rail that people in North Carolina aren’t exactly flocking to adopt,” he said.
But there has been growth in rail ridership over the years, specifically on the route from Raleigh to Charlotte. Over the last two years, Simmons said ridership has increased by about 20 percent on the two trains running the route, with 6.5 percent growth overall since the 1990s. Amid the economic downturn last year however, ridership did fall by more than 7 percent.
Simmons says he expects ridership to increase as the upgrades are completed.
“As we offer more service opportunities, North Carolinians have responded and do ride the train,” Simmons said. “We see people changing their lifestyles. We see people in the Triangle commuting to the Triad to go to school. We didn’t have that before.”
Karen Rindge, executive director of the nonpartisan WakeUp Wake County, says it’s imperative the state prepare for those changes. Rindge has helped organize a coalition called the Capital Area Friends of Transit focused exclusively on advocating for expanded transportation options.
“Because so many other urban areas in this country are turning toward transit, people are asking for it,” Rindge said. “We are one of the few major metropolitan areas in the country that lacks a real multi-modal transit system.”
As part of that transit system, Rindge said high-speed rail is essential to dealing with the explosive growth projected for Raleigh and Wake County.
“We can’t hide our heads in the sand. We have to wake up to the reality that our population’s going to double, and even with the economic slowdown we’re still growing,” she said. “So the question is: How are we going to move people efficiently and how are we going to provide for the best quality of life?”
The solution, Hayes says, is not rail. He said even the Triangle Transit Authority’s best projections only take 3 percent of the cars off the road, a gain that will be quickly negated by population growth. For the same amount of money, he said DOT could take on projects like the replacement of the Yadkin River Bridge on I-85 and the widening of lanes in Cabarrus County – both huge bottlenecks in the Charlotte area.
“[Rail] is not going to be the answer to the traffic problems of North Carolina, in Raleigh, Wake County or anywhere in North Carolina,” Hayes said. “We just do not have the density and will not have the density to do that.”
But for Rindge, plans for the upgraded high-speed rail are essential to good growth – and expanded rail use in the future.
“Increasing train use in the whole state is really about mobility, economic development and environmental quality for the whole state,” Rindge said.