DURHAM — North Carolina will start spending $545million in federal rail money right away, state officials said Thursday, to create more than 5,000 jobs and get trains running faster and more often between Charlotte and Raleigh.
Lisa P. Jackson, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, came to Durham's new Amtrak depot to announce the state's share of $8 billion in stimulus money approved by Congress to start building a national high-speed passenger rail network.
"First and foremost, this is a jobs program," Jackson told about 200 people gathered in the depot, a renovated red-brick tobacco warehouse. "Americans will be put to work at every step of the way through construction, manufacturing and maintenance. And once rail lines are up and running, communities like Durham will have even greater economic possibilities."
Eugene Conti, secretary of the state Department of Transportation, said his agency would quickly put together a detailed schedule for about 30 projects to straighten curved tracks, add double tracks, upgrade stations, build bridges to separate train and automobile traffic, and expand the state's fleet of locomotives and rail cars.
"This is about putting people to work in engineering firms, design firms, ... all kinds of small businesses across the state, to see each and every project come to life as soon as possible," Conti said.
The projects will include new bridges to replace rail crossings at Hopson Road in Research Triangle Park - with construction expected to start in a few months - and at Morrisville Parkway in Cary.
Passenger stations, platforms and parking lots will be expanded at rail stops inCary, Burlington, Kannapolis and High Point. Improvements are planned for Charlotte and Raleigh rail yards.
By this summer, the DOT plans to add a third daily round-trip train between Raleigh and Charlotte, and the new federal money will add a fourth train to the schedule in coming years. Track improvements will speed up trains at spots where they have to slow down now, and by 2015 the top track speed is expected to increase from the current 79 mph to 90 mph.
New commuter options
David King, general manager of Triangle Transit, said local commuters will have new options when trains run faster and more often. "We'll have four opportunities to leave Raleigh and get to Durham, and vice versa, every day," King said.
U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, a Greensboro Democrat, said Triad-area residents and businesses will take advantage of better connections to Raleigh and Charlotte.
"And it's going to ease congestion on the roads and lessen our dependence on foreign oil," Hagan said in a telephone interview.
North Carolina's funding includes $520 million to improve passenger service between Charlotte and Raleigh, as U.S. Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill disclosed Wednesday night, plus $25 million for four projects to ease rail traffic congestion.
Devices called universal crossovers will make it easier for trains to switch tracks without having to slow down for other trains. One of them will be built in West Raleigh, and the other three will be on CSX tracks north of Rocky Mount.
Jackson, the EPA administrator, touted the environmental benefits of increasing rail travel.
"This is an investment in cleaning up the air we all breathe and reducing greenhouse gases," she said. "Clean, efficient travel options help us cut dangerous amounts of pollution from our skies, lowering the risk of health threats and cutting medical bills."
North Carolina will seek grants for more improvements between Raleigh and Charlotte, including new stops in Hillsborough and Lexington. And the state will push for $3.7 billion to build a new line north from Raleigh to Richmond - cutting 35 miles from the current route, which goes through Rocky Mount - on which trains will travel at 110mph.
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