Rail plan will stay on track

Federal doubts don't deter TTA

Staff WriterJanuary 31, 2005 

The Triangle Transit Authority is sticking with its timetable for starting commuter train service between Raleigh and Durham, despite questions from Washington about assumptions underlying the project.

Engineers, lawyers, purchasing agents and planners are pushing ahead with the aim of breaking ground on the $695 million project this year, and launching service in 2008.

"There have been a lot of folks misunderstanding that the federal money is not going to be coming, or the project is somehow in grave trouble," said Wib Gulley, lawyer for the Triangle Transit Authority.

"The fact is that it is closer to construction and implementation than it ever has been," said Gulley, a former Durham mayor and state senator who helped create the TTA in the late 1980s. "Already, a great deal of work has gone forward. The feds have increased the height of one last hurdle, but we're going to clear it."

TTA officials want to keep moving while the Federal Transit Administration resolves its doubts about a computer forecast that predicts chronic traffic congestion and sluggish highway speeds across the Triangle.

TTA hopes to regain the agency's "recommended" rating this summer and win the government's final pledge to pay 61 percent of a commuter rail line's cost.

Big bump in road now

Some critics say the new questions from Washington provide an opportunity to reconsider the project. Among them, Philip Isley, a Raleigh councilman, predicts that TTA trains will carry few riders and steady operating deficits.

"I can't say for sure whether it's dead or alive now," Isley said. "I think this is a pretty significant bump in the road. If I had my druthers, I would hope this might get us back to the drawing board."

Isley said he thinks the TTA should reroute its trains to pick up more passengers at destinations such as Raleigh-Durham International Airport, and in areas with heavy population density. As possible routes, Isley suggested the Wade Avenue and Glenwood Avenue-U.S. 70 corridors in northwest Raleigh, the area he represents on the city council.

TTA officials have shown no inclination to reconsider the 28-mile route, which follows a freight corridor through Raleigh, Cary, Research Triangle Park and Durham.

The rail project has built momentum over the past eight years, propelled by steady approval from the Federal Transit Administration and fueled so far by more than $100 million in public funds.

Contracts move ahead

John D. Claflin, TTA's general manager, must award two crucial contracts before the end of March to meet the 2008 timetable.

Archer Western Contractors of Atlanta has been chosen to design and build a rail operations and maintenance yard on 26 acres off Ellis Road in Durham County for $25.7 million.

United Transit Systems, a consortium of Japanese and Korean manufacturers, has been chosen to design and build up to 32 self-propelled diesel rail cars for up to $90 million.

Claflin will not have the federal agency's approval by March to spend those large sums, but he wants permission to get the work going, awarding design contracts now and construction contracts later this year.

Hoping to break ground late this year, TTA engineers are pushing ahead with final plans for 28 miles of twin tracks that will include 35 bridges.

Claflin and Gulley say they have nearly wrapped up negotiations with Norfolk Southern Railroad on an agreement about how it will work with TTA on their shared corridor. Operating agreements already have been signed with CSX and the N.C. Railroad.

At the southern end of Research Triangle Park, the N.C. Railroad is spending $5.5 million to replace a 1927 rail bridge over N.C. 54. That will make room for the TTA tracks, allow faster train speeds and clear the way for the TTA's Triangle Metro Center station nearby.

Plans for the Triangle Metro Center include a 168-acre development with shops, offices, a hotel, and as many as 2,800 apartments and condominiums in buildings up to eight stories high.

Planning rail stations

Purchasing agents are moving ahead with land acquisition for the 12 station sites. The TTA closed last week on its biggest single purchase -- and the only one displacing a large business -- when it paid Dillon Supply Co. $9.8 million for 6.1 acres in downtown Raleigh.

TTA has engaged in "friendly condemnations" requested by a few of about two dozen small businesses and landlords affected by the project. Instead of postponing payment while the two sides haggle over a price, the process allows landowners to collect the money offered by TTA quickly -- with the possibility of winning a judgment that will increase that payment later.

"People might see a condemnation and think we're doing a bad thing, but it's really not the case," Gulley said. Some affected businesses have closed, while a few have leases with TTA to continue operating for several more months.

Final station designs will incorporate artwork based on neighborhood themes and regional flavors. The TTA will award commissions this spring after a panel reviews proposals from 125 artists who want to participate in its Arts in Transit program.

Local governments are reviewing site plans for some of the 12 rail stations, and negotiating with TTA about items such as the possibility of more parking around the Ninth Street Station in west Durham.

The start-up date has been moved before, and Claflin doesn't want to see another delay.

TTA had hoped to start service in 2007, but Congress fell behind in agreeing on highway and transit spending plans. Then TTA took longer than expected to get construction and operating agreements with municipalities, railroads and the others affected in Durham and Wake counties.

Triangle in Bush's plan

Last year marked the first time the president's budget proposal included the TTA rail project, though Congress has approved some funds every year since 1997. With such a history of support from Congress and the Federal Transit Administration, Claflin said he is optimistic about winning full project approval.

Previous predictions of traffic congestion and transit ridership -- such as on Charlotte's light-rail transit projects -- have faced similar scrutiny.

The federal agency has a history of moving projects to a "not rated" category while it examines questions, as it has done with the TTA -- and even giving a "not recommended" rating in a few cases -- only to resolve its concerns and awarding full funding.

"I think the scrutiny is good," Claflin said.

He saw similar ups and downs in his work with rail transit projects that eventually won federal approval and are thriving in Portland, Ore., and Denver, Colo.

While his staff continues pushing ahead on the TTA project, Claflin is taking a short vacation this week. He'll be fishing and scuba diving in the Florida Keys with his 32-year-old son -- and, just in case more problems pop up, with his cell phone nearby.

"I've been a little stressed lately," Claflin said. "I've learned over the years that when that happens sometimes, I need a couple of days to clear my head."

Staff writer Bruce Siceloff can be reached at 829-4527 or bruce.siceloff@newsobserver.com.

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