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Derailed 

The Triangle's commuter train service is already behind schedule. Now it might never arrive.

In a meeting room at the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, officials of the Triangle Transit Authority are describing the various places they're thinking of building a downtown rail station for commuters. It seems like just another in a years-long series of efforts to keep local "stakeholders" informed--especially property owners and developers who might help the TTA realize its mission of urban revitalization around thriving transit hubs.

The biggest stakeholder at this session, however, turns out to be the state Department of Transportation (DOT). Its contingent is a dozen strong, nearly one-third of the audience. Why? Ostensibly, they're here to weigh the merits of Triangle Transit's downtown-station options against one they've proposed. But as soon as the formal program ends, DOT folks fan out across the room like spinmeisters after a presidential debate, openly questioning the feasibility of the whole Triangle Transit plan. The project just can't be built on the budget TTA has set for it, they say. TTA is ignoring critical conflicts with freight railroads, they say. Isn't it time, they ask, to do this project right?

Meanwhile, Triangle Transit folks are fuming. The real threat to their budget, they're convinced, is the DOT Rail Division's desire to use Triangle Transit as a vehicle to launch its own rocket--high-speed passenger service between Raleigh and Charlotte that will also run northward to Washington, D.C., and southward to Atlanta, Ga. But DOT has no money to throw in the pot, only grand schemes. And the clock is ticking away.

Two years of behind-the-scenes arguments between Triangle Transit and DOT are now breaking out in public, and the consequences are dire. So dire, in fact, that the dream of a commuter rail line through the heart of the Triangle is in deep trouble.

At a point where DOT and TTA need to agree on a single plan they can take to Washington--together--for federal funding, the two agencies are literally miles apart in their thinking.

How many miles? Here's just one example: To make Triangle Transit's plans work, freight railroads would have to agree to let the TTA move some five miles of track to make room in the rail corridor between Raleigh and Durham. But according to TTA General Manager Jim Ritchey, DOT is insisting that Triangle Transit move 23 miles of freight track to allow for future high-speed passenger service along the Washington-to-Atlanta route.

All in all, Ritchey says, the various changes DOT is demanding would "roughly double" the cost of Triangle Transit and add "years and years and years" of delays. The effect, unless DOT backs off, would be to kill Triangle rail. Delays and design problems have already pushed cost estimates from $250 million three years ago to about $350 million now, Ritchey says. At $350 million, the project is still "largely constructable." At more than $600 million, he believes it isn't--mainly because that kind of money is nowhere in sight.

DOT's take? "I obviously don't agree with that at all," says David King, deputy secretary for public transportation. King acknowledges that the price will be higher with DOT's changes--he won't know by how much until a formal study is completed this spring. He also agrees that the funds that will be needed are not yet "in hand." But he hopes the state legislature will provide some additional funding, despite North Carolina's post-Floyd budget crisis. With more state money, King says, the Triangle Transit and DOT can ask for more federal money under a matching formula under which Washington will pay up to 80 percent of "new rail" projects.

As serious as the money issues are, the time crunch might be worse. Early on, it was hoped that Triangle Transit could get commuter rail service up and running by 2002. In recent years, the target slipped to 2004, then 2005. Now, state Sen. Wib Gulley (D-Durham), who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee and has stepped into the middle of the DOT-TTA battle, says that "if we move aggressively starting today," rail service could begin by 2007 or 2008.

Or, Gulley acknowledges, it may not begin at all. The issues are so complicated, and the positions staked out by DOT and Triangle Transit so at odds, that the project may have to be put off indefinitely. "We're going to get it worked out one way or another very soon," he says flatly.

Translation: If the two agencies can't agree, the region will have to turn away from rail and find other ways to address its traffic woes. "We have difficult to horrible traffic in many places in the Triangle now," Gulley says. "It's already late in the day to get this done."

Can we do without the Triangle Transit line? Gulley's answer to that is equally adamant. "This is one of the most critical transportation and smart growth choices that we have in our future for the next 25 years. And everyone's quality of life is going to suffer if we can't find a way to get it done."

For a decade now, since Triangle Transit was created by the state legislature in 1989, the region's planners have counted on the rail line to help combat metastasizing traffic congestion, spark urban-style development in downtown Raleigh and Durham, and help foster in-town living alternatives to the sprawling subdivisions that are eating up the countryside.

In its first phase, Triangle Transit was to run between Raleigh and Duke University Medical Center in Durham. En route, the trains would stop at 16 stations: eight in Raleigh, four in Durham, two in Research Triangle Park, one each in Morrisville and Cary. Later on, if the rail service was a hit, the line might be extended from Raleigh to eastern Wake County and from Durham to Chapel Hill along the 15-501 corridor, as well as to the airport.

To keep costs down, Triangle Transit planned its phase-one route to follow existing railroad corridors used by the region's two remaining freight railroads, CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern. (Part of the way, the freight track is also shared by Amtrak's intercity passenger trains.) Using the existing corridor would be considerably cheaper than buying enough land for a new one.

The trade-off, however, is that the commuter track could get in the way of the freight tracks. And since federal regulations protect the freight lines from interference, the railroads can force Triangle Transit to buy land in some places to widen the corridor. They can also, by law, make the local transit authority build railroad bridges so its tracks go over the freight tracks. And if negotiations aren't successful, they can keep local rail out of their corridors completely.

Triangle Transit officials interviewed with the understanding that they would not be quoted by name, say that negotiations went smoothly at first. They had a general understanding with the freight lines that, as one TTA official puts it, "they were OK with us running alongside as long as we kept our distance and didn't try to make them move their track."

Officials say that CSX Transportation, which owns the portion of the corridor that Triangle Transit wants to use between downtown Raleigh and three North Raleigh stations, asked that Triangle Transit tracks keep at least 25 feet away, citing an unofficial--but nonetheless widely enforced--labor safety standard. Norfolk Southern, which operates between Raleigh and Cary in a corridor it recently sold to the state-owned North Carolina Railroad Co., seemed willing to relax that standard and let the Triangle Transit track get within 15 feet of its own in places where the corridor was too narrow to allow more room.

Both companies, however, said they wouldn't tolerate anything that would interrupt their daily freight traffic. And forcing them to move their track to make room for the DOT's future high-speed service could easily be seen as just such an interruption.

Thus, Triangle Transit planned its system with the idea of moving as little of the freight lines' track as possible. That goal dovetailed neatly with a second TTA objective--to keep costs down.

From the start, questions have been raised--especially by conservative political leaders in Raleigh and Wake County--about whether a mass-transit rail service could succeed, given the region's sprawling population. Indeed, the whole idea of the rail line was to ease sprawl by attracting development around station stops, decreasing the demand for land in rural communities.

To minimize the political fire from pro-sprawl conservatives, Triangle Transit deliberately chose a low-cost, start-slow approach. Along with using existing corridors, that meant starting with a single-track line, along which cars run in both directions on the same rails, passing one another on parallel "sidings" that loop out and back in places where the corridor is wide enough to permit them. A double-track system, which would require buying more land and moving more track, would send trains from Durham to Raleigh on one set of rails and from Raleigh to Durham on a second set--allowing each to go faster. Triangle Transit's plans call for putting down a second track--in effect, connecting the "sidings"--only when ridership has grown enough to pay for it.

Enter DOT. In 1998, with negotiations still pending between Triangle Transit and CSX Transportation, the state's Rail Division approached the freight line with its own proposition.

The corridor CSX Transportation owns between downtown Raleigh and North Raleigh--the one Triangle Transit wants to use? Well, it doesn't stop in North Raleigh. Actually, it goes all the way to Petersburg, Va., though CSX Transportation removed the rest of the track 15 years ago since it wasn't being used. DOT, in concert with Virginia's state transportation agency, proposed putting the track back in and upfitting the corridor for high-speed passenger service.

The freight railroad figured it might, with a new track, have future business in the corridor. So CSX Transportation and DOT signed a "memorandum of understanding" that said the Raleigh-to-Petersburg corridor would be revived. In a 1999 report entitled "A Time to Act," DOT Rail said it was in "active negotiations" to buy the North Carolina part of the line from CSX Transportation. (So far, it hasn't happened.)

As soon as DOT signaled its interest in the line, Triangle Transit officials say, CSX Transportation began to change its tune about peacefully coexisting with a commuter line. "It's 'we want this' and 'we want that,' " a Triangle Transit official says of the freight line today.

For one thing, CSX Transportation decided that Triangle Transit needed to leave room in the corridor for a second freight line. That second line, interestingly enough, is what DOT's Amtrak service would use--but only if the track is straightened and flattened to allow for higher speeds.

DOT, though, rejects the idea that its interest in high-speed service has anything to do with what CSX wants in North Raleigh or Norfolk Southern will want elsewhere in the corridor. Quite the contrary: DOT's view is that it is only insisting that TTA do what the freight companies will force it to do anyway. "Measure twice, cut once," one DOT official says.

Lyman Cooper, CSX Transportation's vice president for North Carolina, says that talks with the DOT "in no way changed our negotiating position with TTA." Cooper believes freight, intercity and commuter transit can live together in the corridor, but his company will insist that safe distances be maintained between the lines.

To understand the problem, imagine a rail corridor. It's old. It has curves that follow the topography. In that single corridor, you have to make room for one set of tracks the freight company can use, at least one that Triangle Transit's commuter train can use, and now a third one--which must be straight, even though the corridor is curved--that the freight line can share with an Amtrak train.

That's gonna need to be a wide corridor.

Problem is, in several places in North Raleigh, CSX Transportation has let development encroach into the corridor, so that it now varies widely in width, from as much as 300 feet to as little as 50 feet. Remember, you need 25 feet between the tracks unless CSX Transportation can be persuaded to waive its "rule." Otherwise, somebody--TTA, DOT, or maybe Uncle Sam someday--will have to buy the encroaching properties and widen the corridor.

That's gonna take a lot of money.

Jim Ritchey says Triangle Transit does have one option for avoiding this particular dilemma: Lop the three North Raleigh stations off its route, at least in the first phase. That would avoid the worst of the problems with the freight lines, although others would still exist in the Norfolk Southern corridor from Raleigh to Durham.

But losing North Raleigh would mean losing an estimated 2,000 riders at day. And Triangle Transit already lost an estimated 2,500 riders a day at the other end of the line when Duke Medical Center balked at letting an elevated rail spur and station into its complex.

Federal funding is tied to estimates of ridership. When Triangle Transit originally attracted federal funding, estimates were that the trains would have 14,000 riders a day by 2025. Later estimates, based on local population growth, raised the estimate to 18,500. Losing Duke and North Raleigh would put the number back to 14,000. Triangle Transit officials hope that would still be sufficient to attract federal funds. But they'll never find out unless they can come to terms with DOT.

While the Triangle dreams of commuter rail, DOT's transit fantasy is the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor. According to the state's Rail Division, this is "a four-state vision" shared by North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia--and also shared by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which made it one of five "designated corridors" around the country eligible for planning funds.

The Southeast Corridor is mainly a business proposition. "The economic and transportation benefits from the construction, increase in leisure and business travel, increased productivity and reduced auto accidents will be over $900 million for North Carolina alone," a Rail Division analysis says. The corridor "would give North Carolina a competitive advantage over other states in the promotion of economic development."

Next year, the nation's first--and so far only--high-speed corridor is scheduled for completion, running from Boston, Mass., to Washington, D.C. Track and rail-car improvements in that corridor will allow Amtrak to run at speeds up to 150 mph. It'll be a long time before 150 mph is achieved here, admits the DOT's David King, but he says there's lots of room to improve on the current average speed of Amtrak service between Raleigh and Charlotte--46 mph.

In 1997, a special commission named by Gov. Jim Hunt recommended that North Carolina cut the Raleigh-Charlotte trip time from its current three hours and 45 minutes to two hours. Hunt embraced that recommendation, but not the $100 million a year of state funding the commission said was needed to make it happen. The state budget contains just $55 million a year for all public transit projects.

Still, Hunt's goal remains--perforce--DOT's goal. And the Rail Division is pressing ahead with its Southeast Corridor plan. But DOT's lofty ambitions have put it squarely in the way of Triangle Transit's commuter start-up because of the need for straighter, faster track.

The clash between DOT's objectives and Triangle Transit's can be seen most clearly in downtown Raleigh at a place called the "wye"--so named, after the letter "y," because three different rail lines come together there at acute angles.

The "wye" sits a few blocks west of Raleigh's commercial center in what's known as the warehouse district. To Triangle Transit and city planners, it's ideally situated for a major transit station--close enough to a major employment center to supply riders for the train, but still a blighted area where major office and residential development is possible.

DOT does not want the station there, because high-speed trains would have to slow dramatically on either side of it. Instead, the state agency prefers a Norfolk Southern-owned corridor that bypasses the "wye." DOT's preferred location would put the downtown Raleigh station north of Hillsborough Street and just east of Glenwood Avenue.

What's wrong with that? It's several blocks farther away from the downtown core, Triangle Transit points out, meaning the commuter service would have less appeal for people working downtown. The DOT site would also stick the station in tight quarters within a stable neighborhood, where it would be far less likely to spark major redevelopment.

Moreover, the DOT alternative would be more expensive for Triangle Transit--if, indeed, it's possible at all--because DOT also wants to rearrange a good portion of the freight track in and out of the "wye." That way, an Amtrak train could get through, if not at high speed, than somewhat faster than the current 10 mph crawl.

The problem of the "wye" in downtown Raleigh, and the question mark hanging over the CSX Transportation corridor to North Raleigh, are only two of Triangle Transit's problems. They're actually just representative of many similar conflicts: Over the whole course of Triangle Transit's first route, the DOT has identified some 20 places where it wants freight track moved for purposes of flattening, straightening and speeding up service.

Listening to Triangle Transit and DOT officials discuss these problems, it's as if one is describing Mount Mitchell and the other Knob Hill.

DOT's David King says that, based on his discussions with fellow transportation officials around the country, "I'm somewhat encouraged that the set of problems we're facing are not particularly vexing by national standards." It's just a matter of straightening out 20 curves, he says. The issues are easily "solvable."

"I heartily disagree with [DOT's] attempts to discount the problems," Triangle Transit's Jim Ritchey responds. Asked about the 20 curves, his voice rises. The freight lines will never allow TTA to move so much track, Ritchey says. Even if they did, "there would be huge technical complications, and all the railroad realignments would have to be done before we could start anything." The costs, both in time and money, would be the death of commuter rail in the Triangle.

What the freight lines actually would demand is unknown, however--and will remain so unless Triangle Transit and DOT can get together and present a plan. As long as the two public agencies are at odds, there's no reason for the freight companies to negotiate.

The Triangle Transit-DOT impasse needed to be resolved last year, before Triangle Transit consultants started a federally funded study of environmental impact and engineering standards along the line. But after Triangle Transit submitted its plans to DOT for comment last January, DOT took until October to fully respond, and the response was in the form of an alternative proposal. Sen. Gulley attempted to mediate, but the deadlock couldn't be broken. Finally, Triangle Transit and DOT agreed that the consultants should study--and do detailed cost estimates of--both sides' proposals. Meanwhile, the Triangle Transit project was dropped from President Bill Clinton's proposed 2001 budget.

That, in itself, isn't fatal to the project. But Ritchey believes that, unless Triangle Transit can put a plan in front of congressional appropriations committees by April with DOT's endorsement, there will be no federal funding for all of fiscal 2001. That could be the last nail in the coffin.

"Unfortunately, I don't believe the people I work with at DOT share that sense of urgency or desire to meet the April deadline," Ritchey added.

At DOT, King says he's optimistic that a compromise will be reached. But he predicts it will be one that will require more money than either the Triangle Transit or DOT Rail can come up with. King says he's looking ahead to a special legislative study commission on transportation financing, headed by none other than Gulley.

But Gulley is on Ritchey's side when it comes to money. He thinks the Triangle Transit project can be built for $350 million, and adds: "There's enough money already in hand to build the system Triangle Transit has in mind--but not if someone else says, while you're building it, help us get high-speed rail ready to go 10 to 15 years down the road."

Federal funds for new rail projects pay up to 80 percent of costs, with a local (or state and local) match of 20 percent required. However, there's only about $1 billion appropriated for new-starts every year, and King believes that competition for the money is such that applicants should propose to pay more than 20 percent--up to a maximum 50 percent if possible.

Where Triangle Transit would get 50 percent of, say, $600 million is a mystery. DOT hasn't got it, and Gov. Hunt isn't going to ask for it in the upcoming legislative session. Gulley says his study commission won't recommend it, either. The commission is charged with finding funds for a growing backlog of road-maintenance and road-construction projects all over the state, as well as for public-transportation improvements.

Frustrated by his efforts to mediate the dispute, Gulley says he's arranging for mediation "at a different level," but declines to say what that means. At TTA, however, staffers are hoping it means Gov. Hunt will step in and curb DOT appetites, or propose a way to get more money.

One possibility would be to follow Charlotte's lead. In 1998, voters in the Charlotte area approved an extra half-cent on the local sales tax for rail and bus improvements. The extra tax is bringing Charlotte more than $50 million a year. A Triangle-wide tax of the same amount would bring in as much or more. But it must first be approved by the General Assembly. And thus far, the Triangle's Republican legislators--and liberal Democrats like Rep. Paul Luebke of Durham--have rejected the idea of a sales-tax hike for transit or any other purpose.

Right now, Triangle Transit has only the 5-percent tax on automobile rentals in the region that the legislature enacted in 1997. The tax brings in $10 million annually. As Ritchey recalls, the tax was approved only after he spent months lobbying the Triangle delegation and assuring them that, if they went along, it would be plenty to finance a Triangle commuter line.

"I told them it would be enough, and it is enough," Ritchey says. Emotions racing, he adds: "It's a point of principle, doggone it. I was telling the truth then, and I'm telling the truth now. That was enough money then, and it's still enough money."

We might never know if he's right. EndBlock

  • Thanks to a feud between transportation agencies, the Triangle's commuter rail might never arrive.

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