Triangle commuter rail study complete after light rail failure

A new study predicts that a commuter rail line in the Triangle could cost around $3 billion and take more than a decade to launch.

The route stretching up to 43 miles would have a start date between 2033 and 2035 and provide 12,000 to 18,000 journeys a day by 2040, GoTriangle executives at County Durham said. Board of Commissioners Tuesday.

The planned route would start in West Durham and stop in Durham City Centre, East Durham, Ellis Road and Research Triangle Park. From there, trains would stop at Morrisville and twice at Cary before heading to Raleigh, with stops at Blue Ridge Road, NC State, Downtown and Hammond Road, before heading to Garner and potentially the community of Auburn in Wake and Clayton County.

“We want to go from West Durham to Clayton,” said Charles Latucca, President and CEO of GoTriangle. “I think that’s what the region needs in the long term.”

Latucca said adding stops in phases was a possibility.

Deputy Commissioner of Commissioners Wendy Jacobs said a phased approach was a “no-brainer” and Durham must be in the first phase.

“We have skin in the game. We’ve been working on this for a long time,” Jacobs said. “We talk about the problems, but we don’t talk about the costs of not to advance.”

President Brenda Howerton agreed.

“We feel the urgency here in Durham,” Howerton said. “It has to happen, and we can’t keep saying, ‘It’s hard.’ Jesus.”

IMG_AMTRAK-NE-040620-RTW_8_1_3KK7JR25_L645736399.JPG
Wake County leaders heard a presentation on a proposed commuter rail that would link Johnston, Wake and Durham counties. It would be built along existing rail lines, like this Amtrak line in Raleigh, North Carolina. Robert Willette [email protected]

Latucca assured the commissioners that he did not see the first phase going without Durham and Raleigh.

The Triangle’s population is expected to grow by 1 million people (and 1 million cars) by 2050, according to the Triangular regional pattern.

Latucca said 800,000 new jobs were expected in the same time frame and 350,000 would be located near the rail line.

Unlike broken down light rail, the commuter rail system would share tracks

The feasibility study led GoTriangle to revise upward estimates of commuter rail costs to between $2.8 billion and $3.2 billion, plus $42 million per year for operations and maintenance.

Unlike the failed light rail project, the commuter rail would share tracks with Norfolk Southern and CSX freight trains, existing and planned Piedmont trains, and long-distance Amtrak trains.

The light rail would have traveled 18 miles in Durham and Orange counties. That idea fell through amid opposition from Duke University, but not before $157 million was spent on the project, GoTriangle reported.

Double track, two railway tracks in either direction, is expected to be provided along most of the route to accommodate freight and passenger train traffic.

GoTriangle reports the most barriers to implementation in Durham:

  • The dual carriageway is expected to extend a further 3 miles west of Durham.
  • There is no consensus yet on the design of the new Durham City Center runways.
  • Placing a station in East Durham near Durham Tech would require the closure of part of Plum Street.
  • A third track would be needed near the rail yard in East Durham, which would require the closure of a section of Driver Street.
  • A location must be chosen for the RTP station.

Durham and Wake counties’ half-cent transit sales taxes will not cover the cost, and the extent of Johnston County’s involvement is unclear. The extent of available federal funding is uncertain, said Katharine Eggleston, GoTriangle’s director of development.

“I want us to tackle every lone piece of silver,” Commissioner Nimasheena Burns said.

A 2020 agreement between eight agencies stipulated that $6 million would come from Wake, $2.7 million from Durham and $250,000 from Johnston.

Commissioner Heidi Carter said she was unsure if commuter rail was feasible given the state of financial planning.

“Funding is always the issue,” Latucca replied. “There are plenty of subsidies and the bipartisan infrastructure law has provided more opportunities.”

There will be a 45-day public comment period after the GoTriangle Board of Directors formally accepts the study results later this month.

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This story was originally published September 7, 2022 4:49 p.m.

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Mary Helen Moore covers Durham for The News & Observer. She grew up in eastern North Carolina and attended UNC-Chapel Hill before spending several years working at newspapers in Florida. Outside of work, you might find her riding her bike, reading, or petting plants.

Jose P. Rogers