State wants $5.3 billion for trains

Despite skepticism, officials foresee a high-speed system running in eight years.

Staff WriterOctober 3, 2009 

— North Carolina asked the Obama administration Friday for $5.3billion to help build a network of fast trains state officials say could be running by 2017, serving a projected 1.8million riders a year between Charlotte and Washington.

The state would use the money to add and upgrade tracks, trains and stations from Charlotte to Raleigh, and to build a new direct line from Raleigh to Richmond. Virginia is seeking additional money, about $1.5billion, to improve service from Richmond to Washington.

Building and operating the proposed 475-mile Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor would support an estimated 60,000 jobs over seven years, Gov. Beverly Perdue said.

"These projects are critical for communities throughout our state," Perdue said in a news release. "North Carolina's commitment to rail puts us in strong contention for these funds."

The Obama administration plans to distribute $8billion in federal stimulus money to start construction of a national high-speed rail network. Congress is considering budget proposals to add $1.2billion to $4billion more each year over the next five years.

About a dozen proposals for funding were expected in Washington by Friday's deadline. North Carolina is one of only a handful of states that have progressed beyond the idea stage, with engineering plans that build upon ongoing rail service improvements.

North Carolina's congressional delegation signed a letter of unanimous support for the state's push, which also has business and government endorsements in Virginia and South Carolina.

But a rail skeptic scoffed at the Obama plan and North Carolina's request for a big share of the money.

"I think it's going to be a high-risk, high-cost project," said Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow at the libertarian-oriented Cato Institute. "I don't know why taxpayers should be asked to pay for this."

O'Toole said the trains would carry a tiny share of the region's travelers and would not cut pollution or conserve oil in an era when new fuel-economy standards will require cars to average more than 35 mpg. He said the chief beneficiaries will be freight railroads.

Illinois and California, with strong political connections in Congress and the White House, are top contenders for big shares of the stimulus money, he said.

"Unless Congress appropriates a lot more money, I don't see North Carolina's chances being very good," O'Toole said from his home in Oregon. "Especially when you're asking for more than half of that $8billion."

The road to Petersburg

North Carolina has worked steadily in recent years to improve tracks and stations and cut travel times between Raleigh and Charlotte. The Department of Transportation has taken the lead role in developing the proposed Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor to Washington.

The largest part of North Carolina's request, $3.7billion, would restore rail service in an abandoned CSX corridor that runs almost straight from Raleigh to Petersburg, Va. -- a shorter path than the current Amtrak route via Selma, Wilson and Rocky Mount.

The 168-mile path to Petersburg would have a single track with passing sidings and 100 new highway bridges to run the track over or under every road. The state DOT has finished 30 percent of the engineering plans for three alternate routes to Petersburg.

"I don't know of anywhere else in the country that has progressed that far," said Patrick Simmons, DOT rail division chief. "Maybe California. We're not competing in a universe of 50 states. We're in the final four."

The road to Charlotte

The 174-mile route between Raleigh and Charlotte would be double-tracked, with about 30 new bridges to eliminate most at-grade road crossings. The proposal includes money to add new stops in Lexington and Hillsborough. Average speeds, taking stops into account, are projected at 86 mph.

Simmons said the fast train service would generate more than enough ticket revenue to cover operating costs. North Carolina hopes for "substantial money now," when the federal government distributes the $8billion sometime early next year.

Then, Simmons said, the state will have to show that it can build the first stages of the project to earn more federal money to finish it in subsequent years.

Travel times

North Carolina eventually would have eight round trips by rail each day between Raleigh and Charlotte, and four between Raleigh and Washington. Projected travel times would drop to two hours, 15 minutes between Raleigh and Charlotte, and four hours between Raleigh and Washington -- a journey that now takes six hours by train and is subject to frequent delays.

A tentative interim timetable shows southbound trains leaving Raleigh at 6:30 and 9:30 a.m. and 12:30, 2:30 and 6:30 p.m.

"It gives you the opportunity that you can live here in Raleigh and work in Greensboro routinely, or do business up and down the corridor," Simmons said. "This has the potential to be a great breakthrough project that takes us a great leap forward." or 919-829-4527

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