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Road Worrier: Wake would put money into commuter trains

Wake County leaders are indeed shifting their approach to trains, but they say they have not backed away from a commitment to rail transit service.

The Road Worrier reported Tuesday that more buses – a quadrupling of current service – and bus rapid transit are the first order of business in a countywide strategy being developed around a proposed half-cent sales tax to help pay for big new transit investments.

Transit planners, business leaders and elected officials in Wake have dropped talk of “rapid rail transit” with diesel-fueled rail cars that would run every 15 to 30 minutes.

But, in reporting that the county was turning away from rail transit, the Road Worrier misconstrued Wake’s latest thinking on trains.

The county commissioners this fall will take up a new recommendation from a citizen advisory committee to set aside around $330 million over 10 years for proposed commuter trains. The trains would run on standard tracks, mostly at rush hour.

“We are definitely committed to getting started on commuter rail as soon as we can pass the referendum” in November 2016, Sig Hutchinson, a Wake commissioner, said Tuesday.

According to preliminary figures from Wake planners, another $110 million would be set aside for bus rapid transit along with $300 million to $400 million for standard bus expansion.

In their new rail transit approach, Wake leaders aim to revive a plan for commuter trains that was floated in Durham County in 2011, and later shelved.

Workday trains would carry students and commuters in both directions between Duke University and downtown Durham at one end, and Garner or Clayton at the other end – with stops along the way in Research Triangle Park, Morrisville, Cary, N.C. State University and downtown Raleigh.

After Wake balked at considering a transit plan for several years, Durham leaders dropped the idea of regional commuter trains. They shifted their transit tax resources to a light-rail project, now being developed, between Chapel Hill and downtown Durham.

County Manager Jim Hartmann helped develop commuter rail service in central Florida before he moved to Raleigh last year. If voters approve the transit tax, he said, Wake will start planning commuter trains in concert with railroad agencies and neighboring counties, he said.

Ultimate success may depend on a multi-county effort that would draw more riders than Wake alone, draw on broader financial support and provide a more appealing candidate for federal funding, which would be counted on for about half the project cost. A commuter train project can start small, Hartmann said – perhaps building on existing state-sponsored Amtrak service – and grow later to include more miles and more stations.

“Everything is scalable,” Hartmann said.

Hutchinson said he hoped to get some trains rolling in a few years – first in Wake County and in neighboring counties as soon as possible.

“We want to think about this regionally and start locally,” Hutchinson said.