Light rail, once the darling of Wake County’s transit advocates, is dead on the tracks. The capital county’s transit-planning group has nixed the idea of lighter-weight electric trains that could thread through tight urban areas.
Instead, consultant Jarrett Walker has guided the formative plan toward “rail rapid transit,” or “regional rail,” an approach he says could bring high-frequency train service at a lower cost per mile.
“It is looking to us like a way to get around some of the serious problems associated with light rail,” Walker told the Transit Advisory Committee, a group of people from across the county who are shaping scenarios for a long-awaited transit program, on Wednesday.
“Rail rapid transit” actually is a new name for an approach the county tried to advance in the 2000s. Under the new potential plan, the county still would build new rail lines and stations. However, the electric lines would be replaced by heavier diesel-fueled trains.
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As with light rail, the trains could come every 15 minutes on the busiest part of the network. The stations would be farther apart – about a mile at the closest, compared to a quarter-mile for light rail.
Rapid rail might cost $50 million per mile, compared to $100 million per mile for light rail, according to Richard Adams, a consultant with the design consulting firm Kimley-Horn.
Rough plans show a high-frequency line that runs from near Research Triangle Park, through Morrisville and Cary, along the south side of downtown Raleigh and north along Atlantic Avenue to Interstate 440.
Commuter extensions, with less frequent service, could stretch past Triangle Town Center in the northeast and north toward Wake Forest. A southeastern spur could follow Garner Road to the Johnston County line.
The potential price tag: $1.4 billion for the main line and $800 million for the extensions, plus perhaps $62 million per year to run the whole thing.
The county’s 2012 transit plan, which was basically discarded, would have covered less ground at a higher installation cost, according to the consultants.
The new alternative is cheaper to build than light rail because the heavier vehicles can run closer to existing freight rail lines, potentially making it easier to build new lines.
The self-propelled rail cars, also known as “diesel multi-units,” don’t require overhead electric lines, although the system could be converted to electric power later, according to Walker. However, they won’t be able to swoop through parts of downtown Raleigh, as light rail might have.
Instead, Walker suggested that the county might build a station near the Raleigh Convention Center.
So far, the plan is emerging as a clear favorite among the scenarios that the consultants will present to the public on May 11.
Walker, based in Oregon, has presented rapid rail as the consulting team’s suggestion. More than 90 percent of the advisory panel voted to eliminate light rail and commuter rail from consideration. They didn’t vote on the rail rapid transit idea.
A similar plan was under consideration until 2007 for Wake County, according to Eric Lamb, a city of Raleigh transportation planning manager. The plan got far enough along that local governments were showing off train cars in downtown Raleigh. The idea died when federal funding dried up.
“It kind of changed for us overnight,” said former city councilwoman Anne Franklin. And now the idea’s coming back around.
“It’s like, back to the future,” said Wake County Commissioner Sig Hutchinson. That future could take 10 to 12 years or longer to arrive, the consultants estimated.
Meanwhile, Durham and Chapel Hill are preparing to build a light-rail line linking their downtown areas. There are no plans for a Durham to Raleigh link, but Durham County could link up with Wake County’s system near RTP.
Rail, of course, isn’t the only option on the table. Wake County plans to release four general plans to the public on May 11.
“We’re soon going to get to see what transit really could look like for Wake County – and, most importantly, everybody, the public, will get to have a say,” said Karen Rindge, director of WakeUP Wake County, a member of the transit group’s technical team.
Two of the scenarios will focus on the new rail-rapid transit system, while two will feature bus expansion more heavily, including segments of “bus rapid transit,” which puts buses in their own dedicated lane to bypass congestion.
Those plans will be circulated through the summer, with locals invited to weigh in and recombine elements as they like.
Then it’s up to the Wake County Board of Commissioners to take the matter to the voters. They likely would ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax in a 2016 election to pay for the new system.