Fast trains get a fresh look from GOP legislators taking their seats on a Virginia-North Carolina compact

Posted by Bruce Siceloff on October 21, 2013 

— After sitting dormant for nearly two years, a two-state panel charged with promoting faster train service appears to be cranking up again. State rail planners gave a three-hour briefing Monday to four Republican legislative leaders and a Raleigh lawyer charged with representing North Carolina’s interest in improving the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor from Atlanta to Washington, D.C.

DOT is spending more than $500 million in federal stimulus construction grants to make passenger train service faster and more reliable between Charlotte and Raleigh. And rail engineers are polishing their plans for a 110-mph shortcut line from Raleigh to Richmond, which could cut 90 minutes to two hours off the travel time between North Carolina and the northeast.

Republicans generally have not shared Democrats’ enthusiasm for the Obama administration’s fast-train initiative. But rail is getting a second look in the McCrory era because the same tracks that serve Amtrak also carry freight trains.

“I don't think there is anybody in the country that is doing more to improve their rail capacity than we are here in North Carolina,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. “It's very critical to moving freight and to our economic development in this state. It’s really pretty exciting, the improvements that are being made in our rail transportation in North Carolina.”

Dollar has been a member since 2011 of the Virginia-North Carolina Interstate High Speed Rail Compact, but the group hasn’t met since January 2012. He was reappointed to the panel alongside three new compact members, all Republicans who oversee House and Senate transportation committees: Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews, Sen. Bill Rabon of Southport, and Sen. Kathy Harrington of Gastonia. The four, named by House and Senate leaders, along with Gov. Pat McCrory’s appointee, Raleigh lawyer Randy Lickey, are expected to meet early next year with their five Virginia counterparts.

DOT engineers have said it will cost an estimated $3.8 billion to build the new line and launch fast train service between Raleigh and Richmond.

“We have about 60 miles of that in North Carolina and 100 miles in Virginia,” Dollar said. “To map out a strategy for that line will require cooperation between the two states. Obviously, we need to be working on a similar vision.

“I think the North Carolina leadership – the governor and the General Assembly – wanted to get our folks appointed and get together with the folks in Virginia and just see where we are in terms of the vision of the project, see if we can get it moving forward,” Dollar said.

“It's critical to economic development, particularly on the freight side, to be able to have an efficient system. We're working on those issues, as well as as on long-haul passenger service.”

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