In the transit plan Wake County will likely ask taxpayers to fund in a November referendum, eastern Wake County gets improved bus service, but no rail, as Garner would to the south of Raleigh. But last decade Knightdale led an ill-fated plan to bring rail from Raleigh east.
Like the current proposal, Eastrans, as it was known, would have used existing rail lines to extend commuter service in a U-shape route from Raleigh. One line would have extended out to Wilson – a Norfolk Southern line – and another – a North Carolina Railroad Company line – to Goldsboro.
Unlike the current proposal, it included stops in Knightdale, Wendell and Zebulon on the Wilson line.
After a feasibility study found issues with the condition of the track and the time the trip would take, Knightdale backed out in 2004.
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In addition to Wake, Knightdale reached out to Johnston, Wilson and Nash counties to partner with in the effort, said Mayor Pro Tem Mike Chalk, who also was on the Town Council at the time.
“Other folks didn’t want to buy into it,” he said.
The cost was estimated at $126 million to build and $4.7 million a year to operate, compared with the estimated $62 million annual cost of operating the rail system now being contemplated. It would cost an additional $1.4 billion to begin service from near Research Triangle Park to Garner, running through downtown Raleigh.
Inflation accounts for part of the rise in cost, according to Robert Bush, who presented the feasibility study to the Town Council in 2004 when he was senior transit planner with Wilbur Smith Associates, an engineering consulting firm that conducted the study, but also the current plan includes more trips and takes environmental impact into account.
“So it’s a much firmer number than what we had,” Bush said.
The tracks from Wilson take a winding route that added time to the trip, especially from Wendell to Raleigh. Making improvements would have added tens of millions to the project.
“Because you had to straighten them out you’re talking a major capital investment,” said former Knightdale Mayor Russell Killen, who also served on the Town Council at the time the town was considering the project. “The idea is you could do it without a major capital investment, but that just didn’t prove to be the case.”
Without improvements to the track, the train was just not going to be able to compete with a car ride for speed.
From Wilson, for example, Chalk said, “it takes an hour to drive to Raleigh. It would take an hour and a half to ride the train. What would you do? ... But we did try. We explored things and it just didn’t work out.”
Waiting for congestion
Also, as Bush pointed out, the Knightdale U.S. 64 Bypass had just opened at the time the study came out, so it gave motorists even more of a time advantage over the proposed commuter line.
Until congestion begins to cut into that advantage, Bush said, passenger rail is unlikely for this part of the county.
The study found the line to Goldsboro, including a stop in Garner, to be in much better condition for passenger service, Bush said, and part of that line is used in the current proposal.
Another impediment, according to Mike Frangos, who was the Knightdale planning director when the feasibility study was conducted, was that transit officials were in support of putting stations outside of the eastern Wake towns’ downtowns, where there was more room for park and ride lots, but the towns wanted to locate stations in town centers to spur development there.
“That was going to be a huge new location for the city around the idea that we’re going to have transit,” said Frangos, now planning director for Creedmoor. “Unfortunately, when you do a feasibility study, sometimes it comes back infeasible.”
Matt Goad: 919-829-4826