June 30, 2014

Road Worrier: Southeastern states should band together for better trains

Whenever the money starts flowing again for big railroad projects, North Carolina and its neighbors will find themselves competing with multistate alliances that already are developing long-range rail improvement plans in the Northeast and Midwest.

Georgia and South Carolina lag behind Virginia and North Carolina in the push to build good passenger train service, but the four southeastern states could make better time if they hitched their planning engines together.

And they might have more hope of raising money for big rail improvements, such as a Raleigh-to-Richmond shortcut track, which could shave 90 minutes off train times between North Carolina and northern cities.

That’s the message Joseph Szabo, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, delivered recently to a Richmond audience. Whenever Congress starts putting money into passenger rail improvements again – money it stopped spending in 2010 – the southeastern states could lose out to multistate alliances that are collaborating on long-term rail plans for the Northeast and the Midwest, he said.

“Good planning is the cornerstone of service delivery, and a plan reflecting the collective vision for a region helps the region compete effectively for future rail funds as money becomes available,” Szabo said. “In order for the region to achieve optimum growth, it will be necessary for them to work together more closely and plan for their transportation future.”

The Obama administration has invested $736 million in projects to make rail service faster, more frequent and more reliable in the four southeastern states – nearly all of it in North Carolina and Virginia.

North Carolina is using the money to build more tracks, improve stations, close crossings, straighten curves, increase speeds and add more trains a day to the nine-city schedule between Charlotte and Raleigh. A new Amtrak depot will open in downtown Raleigh in 2017, and Charlotte also is planning a new station.

Meanwhile, if you consult your timetables, you’ll find our southern neighbors running 10 to 20 years behind North Carolina.

South Carolina state leaders are cold to the notion of sinking tax dollars into steel-wheel transportation. Georgia’s Department of Transportation is taking the lead in plans for new passenger train service from Atlanta through South Carolina to Charlotte.

“When you look at North Carolina and Virginia, they really have a leg up on us, because they already have such robust passenger rail systems they have invested in,” said Natalie Dale, Georgia DOT spokeswoman. “We’re looking to determine how feasible this is for Georgia. It comes down to what most transportation issues come down to today, and that is dollars.”

Right now Atlanta is served only by the Amtrak Crescent, running once a day between New Orleans and New York. But Norfolk Southern Railway, which owns the Crescent tracks between Atlanta and Charlotte, is reluctant to allow more passenger trains that might limit freight traffic growth in the future.

So, for a draft environmental impact statement due this fall, Georgia is evaluating five alternate routes that could send new trains curving as far east as Augusta, Ga., and Columbia, S.C.

In Virginia, a new transportation revenue law is expected to generate about $250 million for rail improvements over the next five years. North Carolina’s political sentiment is about midway between that of its neighbors: warmer to rail investment than South Carolina’s, but cooler than Virginia’s. Some legislators in Raleigh tried briefly a couple of years ago to join other states that spurned Obama’s rail money, but the anti-train sentiment never caught fire here.

Future funding in doubt

Four Republican legislators now represent North Carolina on a two-state high-speed rail compact with Virginia. Szabo said the two states should invite their southern neighbors to the planning table, too. Paul Worley, the N.C. DOT rail director, said that could happen eventually.

“We can envision that this group eventually includes South Carolina and Georgia,” Worley said by email.

Now the McCrory administration promotes rail improvements as smart for the state economy. But it’s not clear how well trains will compete against highways under McCrory’s new Strategic Mobility Formula, with guidelines that make trains ineligible for major statewide project funding.

Part of Szabo’s June 20 speech in Richmond was a pitch for Obama’s proposed “GROW AMERICA Act” (those capital letters initialize the words of a long, awkward phrase). It’s a four-year, $302 billion transportation bill that would include $19 billion for rail improvements nationwide.

That would provide more than enough to complete the 110-mph shortcut track between Raleigh and Richmond, at an estimated $3.8 billion – with plenty left over for Georgia and South Carolina.

But no one expects Congress to approve the Obama spending proposal. And no one knows when or whether the states will find the money to build out these rail projects.

“Right now we’re looking at a financial commitment that we can’t make today,” said Dale, the Georgia DOT spokeswoman. “But we’re still active in the conversation should we reach a solution for transportation funding in the future.”

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