Though Raleigh has been talking rail for more than two decades, it seems as though plans to make the Capitol City a rail-friendly place are now chugging along.
Raleigh is involved in three different rail projects—high speed rail, light rail and building a new downtown train station. Durham residents will vote Tuesday on a half-cent sales tax that could affect the future of transit not just in Durham, but throughout the Triangle. Here is a look at where things stand.
Last year the North Carolina Department of Transportation received $550 million from the federal government to make incremental improvements between Charlotte and Raleigh. The expected completion date is 2017, according to NCDOT Rail Division Environmental Manager Marc Hamel.
The Raleigh to Richmond, Va. leg of the high speed rail project is still in the environmental planning phase and the DOT is compiling a report of the findings for the 160-mile project. A public update meeting will be held in February or March.
One of the most recent developments in the project was an endorsement by the City Council for where the line will cross through the city.
Alternative NC 3 was endorsed by city planners and the Passenger Rail Task Force last year, but councilors asked the NCDOT to do more research to see if it could come up with a hybrid plan.
To keep the line safe, the NCDOT would be sealing the corridor, which means no railroad crossings. Several roads would have to be closed in downtown Raleigh, including Harrington and West streets, isolating part of Glenwood South.
The NCDOT combined NC 1 and NC 3 to create a new plan known as Alternative NC 5.The result is an option that would avoid the closure of most streets and lessens the impact on private and historical properties. Jones Street will still be closed, but a pedestrian overpass will be built to prevent Glenwood’s isolation.
The change comes at a price. The cost increased from $20 million to $158 million because of the increased number of bridges. Hamel said the increase in cost for the project is a small percentage of what the entire endeavor will cost to construct.
That cost is still unknown, as is the source of funding.
Hamel said that the planning phase is funded with $4 million from the Federal Railroad Administration, but the federal funding source for the construction end of the project remains unknown.
One of the major issues — light rail in Raleigh — is riding on is the half-cent sales tax increase on which Durham residents will vote Tuesday. Wake County residents may have the chance to vote on a similar tax next year, but some Wake County Commissioners have expressed reservations about putting the transit tax on a the ballot.
The increase will pay for improvements to overall transit in Durham, including buses, but commuter rail and light rail are part of the big picture. The plan is to use commuter rail to connect Durham with Research Triangle Park and install light rail to connect both major university hospitals at Duke and UNC.
Triangle Transit Authority Communications Director Damian Graham said the goal is to bring this commuter line through Raleigh and into Johnson County. The 37-mile project is currently estimated to cost $650 million. The funding for the project would come from the half-cent sales tax increase and a $10 increase in vehicle registration fees.
Raleigh Transportation Planner Eric Lamb said Tuesday’s results in Durham are a bellwether for how the same referendum would fare in Wake County. If Durham residents turn down the tax Tuesday, getting it on the ballot in Wake will be that much more difficult.
If Durham, Orange and Wake Counties pass the increases, residents can expect increased bus service implemented within five years and the commuter rail soon after, which takes advantage of existing tracks.
Contingent on federal funding is the light rail that would run from Millbrook to Downtown Cary. The 14-mile project is estimated to cost $1.1 billion.
Despite the funding uncertainty, the City Council endorsed a plan that would bring light rail through downtown Raleigh. Route D6 runs down West Morgan and Harrington streets and joins at the CSX line to run west through the N.C. State University campus.
Graham said Triangle Transit will be bringing all of this information to all of the involved municipalities for feedback. The plan must be approved by the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Triangle Transit Board of Trustees and then the Wake County Commissioners before being implemented.
Raleigh’s Cabarrus Street train station is no Grand Central, but a collective effort between the city and NCDOT would make significant improvements.
The NCDOT is finishing up a feasibility study that would re-purpose the Dillion Supply Viaduct Building as a new station. NCDOT expects to have a final report at the beginning of 2012.
The new Union Station would have increased parking, a larger waiting room and an elevated platform. The station will cater to commuter and light rail as well as high-speed rail, but not interfere with freight-train service through the area.
Reconfiguring the station also increases the speed that trains can pass through the area from 10 mph to 20.
Both phases of the project will cost about $54 million dollars, with Raleigh kicking in $3 million from the recently approved transportation bond.
Will They Ride It?
Despite the lack of a fancy, new station and a quick-moving train, data provided by NCDOT and Triangle Transit shows increasing ridership — a good indicator of what the future will bring.
Hamel said ridership on Amtrak’s Piedmont line, which runs from Charlotte to Raleigh, has increased 233 percent since 2006. In 2011, 140,000 riders took the Piedmont, a 70 percent increase from 2010.
“We’re scrambling to keep up with it,” Hamel said.
As gas prices and congestion on major highways increase, Hamel believes that more people will look for an alternative mode of transportation.
“When you can get [to Washington, DC] two hours quicker than you can now it becomes more attractive,” he said.
Recent light rail projects in Charlotte, Hampton Roads, Va., and Phoenix, Ariz. met their 10- and 20-year ridership projections within the first year. Hamel admits ridership is a hard thing to predict, but Triangle Transit estimates that in 2035 daily light-rail ridership will be 15,950.
A commuter line could see a daily ridership of 6,860.
“In the long run we don’t have any choice than to come up with some alternatives,” Hamel said, observing that the Triangle is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. “We can’t keep building lanes.”