Let’s rebuild NC’s rail system

A rendering of the proposed light rail station for downtown Durham.
A rendering of the proposed light rail station for downtown Durham.

Wake County has finally joined Durham and Orange Counties in a 10-year plan to improve transit in the region. With an ultimate investment of $2.2 billion, this will be a good start. But these plans should be just one building block of a complete system that positions us as a sustainable, mobile region in the long term, and one that includes our rural neighbors in the fruits of our growth. And we need to look to one of our most tried and true transportation systems to get the job done: passenger rail service.

Until the late 1960’s most of North Carolina’s towns, large and small alike, were connected by rail service. As the highway system developed and spending priorities shifted, roads overtook rails, and for many years, served our growing population centers well. Many small towns, however, whose life blood was the rail line, dried up. Now, our freewheeling car-based system has yielded traffic jams, congestion, pollution, and billions in ongoing investment just to keep up. And the promise of highways somehow bringing prosperity for our rural towns has simply never materialized.

Nevertheless, DOT continues its road building spree. A good example is the proposed reconstruction of Capital Boulevard from I-540 to Wake Forest as an Interstate Highway. Cost for 7 miles: $545 million. Surely we know by now that this will lead to more sprawl, more traffic, and no real long-term solution to anything. The current northern leg of the Outer Loop should serve as a textbook for what interstate construction does to the areas that surround it.

Clearly, it’s time to let go of this 20th century road based ‘planning’. And in this case, we have another options. We can build a commuter rail line all the way from Downtown Raleigh’s shining new station to downtown Wake Forest instead. A study (by DOT and Go Triangle) has already been done. Price tag for the system? $436 million. A comparative bargain.

Could trains, our early 20th century stalwarts, be a solution for 21st century problems? Well, rail can accommodate densities far higher than auto-based development. Through a smaller corridor, it can move more people, using far less energy. It never encounters a traffic jam. Charlotte’s light rail, just its first seven-mile stretch, induced over 6 million square feet of walkable development along its route in the first 10 years.

The Wake Forest/Raleigh route could create several times that, with much less land use and traffic than a highway. More of our exurban land could stay green. Air stays cleaner. Water, too.

And, with more opportunity for dense, rail-oriented development, comes the housing we so badly need in this region.

But why stop there? How about pumping the brakes on the $530 million widening of I-40 to highway 42, and instead re-start rail service to the east? How about all the way to New Bern and Morehead City? Wouldn’t Clayton, Selma, Goldsboro, Kinston, and other exurban towns like to have regular rail service to Raleigh or the coast emanating from their downtowns? New development around the stations is sure to follow, as these towns become opportunities for affordable housing, far from the high land costs of Raleigh, but in easy commuting distance by rail. This could be a bridge between rural and urban that would transform both for the better.

Knitting our entire region, and ultimately, our state together with an efficient, reliable rail system will pay benefits to all of us, and for decades to come. It can be a gift to our future North Carolinians.

So, governor and legislators, here is a place that you might find common ground and do our state a great service into the bargain. Let’s redirect the massive transportation resources already at our disposal, and get to work on a truly regional 21st century transit network. We can create opportunities for affordable housing, encourage revitalization for our exurbs and rural towns, and maybe even keep the place a little greener into the bargain.

Sign me up for the first ride to Morehead City from Raleigh- I will be sure to stop in Kinston for lunch.

Ted Van Dyk, AIA Is Principal of New City Design Group, a Raleigh Architectural Firm, and a member of the Wake County Planning Board.