03/24/09 — Study will measure commuter rail interest

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Study will measure commuter rail interest

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on March 24, 2009 1:46 PM

The North Carolina Railroad Co. will conduct a study to gauge interest in a proposed commuter rail line that would connect Goldsboro to Research Triangle Park and beyond.

If the project moves forward, commuters in the Triangle and Triad areas could eventually have access to as many as four morning trains and four evening trains, which would pass along 140 miles of existing NCRR track. The commuter rail from Goldsboro would run to RTP in the morning and return in the afternoon, and three other lines would connect from RTP to Burlington and Greensboro, and from Chapel Hill to Carrboro.

NCRR is preparing to accept proposals from firms to complete the study, which will examine where potential riders live and work and whether there is enough demand to support a commuter rail line. The proposal comes on the heels of a 2008 cost study by the NCRR that examined the feasibility of operating commuter rail service on the same tracks used by Norfolk Southern freight trains and Amtrak passenger trains.

Commuter trains can share tracks with freight trains, if they meet federal passenger rail car standards, and if there are enough tracks in North Carolina to move freight across the state 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Operating multiple trains on the same lines, however, would require expensive federally mandated upgrades to the existing tracks. Bridge improvements, crossing upgrades and adding passing tracks would cost between $2.9 and $9.3 million per mile of train track, and the NCRR would not pay for it. Funding would have to come from federal, state and local sources, said Kat Christian, public affairs director for NCRR.

"It would be up to local communities to decide," Ms. Christian said.

Including Goldsboro in the study "seemed kind of logical," she said. "We were looking at areas where the most traffic is."

The Goldsboro segment of the line would be on the low end of the upgrade costs because the company has already done a lot of improvement work on the tracks around the city, Ms. Christian said.

The NCRR decided to move on to the next step in the process based on the results of the initial study.

"We concluded that a market study is the next logical step in determining if there is basis to make capital investments in tracks for commuter trains, and where those investments might occur," said NCRR President Scott Saylor.

Commuter rail trains are not like light rail, Saylor explained.

"Commuter rail is different than light rail in that it runs less frequently and the stops are farther apart," he said.

The Wayne County Chamber of Commerce transportation board continues to discuss the potential commuter rail line with NCRR, said Chamber of Commerce president Steve Hicks.

"We're very involved," he said.

The commuter rail could open up "all types of economic development for us," Hicks said.

There are multiple possible benefits to Goldsboro, said chamber board member Sandy Korschun.

"First, it will broaden the job market. We've lost a lot of jobs in this area," Korschun said. "It would be a big benefit to have a commuter loop, that would be the primary benefit."

People in Goldsboro would be able to travel to Raleigh for work while still enjoying the lower cost of living in Wayne County, which could boost the local tax base and possibly even keep more people in the area, he said.

"It could stem migration of young people. We don't have that many young people," Korschun said.

There is one very expensive drawback to the commuter rail.

"The downside is the infrastructure will have to be built by the state," he said.

But even that is mitigated by the potential outcome, he added.

"The potential growth projections, based on a normal economy, the projections are enormous," Korschun said.

NCRR projects that the study will be completed within six to nine months, but it's far too soon to predict how long it could be before the commuter trains would begin service, Ms. Christian said.

NCRR owns and manages the 317-mile railway corridor from Charlotte to Morehead City, and currently carries eight passenger and 70 freight trains a day.

The study and proposed NCRR passenger line are not connected with the Union Station revitalization project, Korschun said.