05/14/10 — N.C. study predicts commuter rail riders

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N.C. study predicts commuter rail riders

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on May 14, 2010 1:46 PM

The North Carolina Railroad Co. released this week the results of a study predicting railway ridership between a possible Greensboro to Goldsboro commuter train line.

The study predicts that the proposed service on the NCRR line would rank 16th in ridership among the nation's 23 commuter rail systems. That level indicates many people in the area would buy a train ticket instead of driving in a car, said John Atkins, NCRR board of directors chairman.

"We see great potential in commuter rail service. The study projections tell us that communities have the opportunity to increase mobility options for citizens along the corridor, which contains about 18 colleges and universities. And if people opt for commuter rail, that frees capacity for businesses to use our roads and reduces congestion which benefits air quality," he said.

The study revealed that there is substantial ridership potential along the NCRR line, particularly between downtown Greensboro and Burlington, and in the greater Triangle area from Princeton to Durham. However, the study also predicted that Goldsboro's section of the line would be the most underutilized of the passenger train line.

However, Scott Saylor, president of the NCRR Co., said the study does not mean that people in Goldsboro would not use the commuter rail if it was developed.

"If the commute is toward the Triangle, people aren't going to drive east to go west," Saylor said.

The stations for people in Goldsboro are likely to feed stations to the west, as Goldsboro residents travel to Raleigh and points beyond. And while the study suggests that the ridership might be lower in Goldsboro than other locations, that means the cost for having the commuter rail in the city would also be lower, Saylor said.

"No decisions have been made, the cost benefit decisions will be up to the communities along the railroad, all the communities, and this is only one option. This is one piece of the puzzle, but there are other pieces," he said.

Hosting the commuter rail program will require decisions from the communities in which it will run, including factors like cost, land use, ridership potential and economic development potential.

The future could hold a significant amount of use for the proposed railroad commuter trains, if the project is adopted and moves forward, although it might be years before that happens.

"I think it's important now to look at what the potential means, particularly for the future, the time horizon, because the ridership doesn't vary significantly until 2022," Saylor said.

Additionally, to be successful, commuter rail must be connected to proposed light rail, bus service or an existing bus network, Atkins said.

"Developing partnerships in planning, funding, and execution is key," he said.

The study, conducted by transport planning consultants Steer Davies Gleave, projects annual ridership state-wide increasing to nearly three million people by 2022. The study also followed the earlier Shared Corridor Commuter Rail Capacity Study, which determined the costs associated with necessary capitol improvements.

The ridership study provided officials with insight about where to make additional track investments. To improve the rail lines to accommodate commuter trains would cost the communities along the railroad approximately $2.5 million per mile. While it may sound like a big number, it's also a bargain compared to what it would cost to make the improvements elsewhere in the state or country, Saylor said.

And the fact that the company already has the rail corridor in place can be an advantage.

"These are exciting times for rail in North Carolina. We have the opportunity to expand passenger and freight rail operations in our state, attract economic development and create jobs. Given the excitement and new funding for high-speed rail in our state, this is the perfect time to look at systems like commuter rail that can create cost beneficial connections," Atkins said

The North Carolina Railroad Company owns and manages the 317-mile rail corridor extending from Morehead City to Charlotte. The railroad carries 60 freight trains and eight passenger trains daily. NCRR is the state's oldest corporation and touches nearly a quarter of the state's economy.