Johnston County Commissioners received an update March 2nd on a ten month preliminary feasibility Commuter Rail Study. The study was presented by Katherine Eggleston the chief development officer who oversees long-range planning with GoTriangle.
The study examined the cost and other requirements needed to establish commuter rail service from as far west as Mebane to as far east as Selma. Commuter rail would allow people to choose a trip with more reliable travel time to the Triangle and other local destinations without getting stuck in traffic. It would also better connect people to more jobs, schools and healthcare through the Triangle, Eggleston said.
The study was conducted to determine whether there is a viable commuter rail project in the Triangle and if it would qualify for federal funding. The federal government could fund up to 50 percent of the cost of commuter train service if certain requirements, including ridership numbers, are met.
The study found an additional train track would need to be installed to accommodate commuter rail. Currently, 27 freight and Amtrak trains used the existing track each day. A new and separate track would be needed, the study recommended.
The study examined three scenarios including 3, 5 and 8 round trips in peak periods, ranging from service every 30 minutes to trains departing key locations every hour. The cost to build a 37 mile track from Durham to Garner and purchase commuter trains is between $1.4 and $1.8 billion. Extending the service from Durham to Selma would vary between $1.6 and $2.1 billion. Service from Mebane to Selma would cost upwards of $2.5 to $3.2 billion to construct.
Yearly operating costs would vary depending on the frequency of train service between the stations. Those prices range from $13 million to $44 million per year.
With frequent train service departures every 30 minutes in peak time periods, an estimated 8,000 to 11,500 people per day would ride commuter rail from as far east as Clayton and Selma into the Triangle. That number would fall to as low as 5,000 to 7,500 per day if trains departed hourly during peak demand, the study suggests. Commuters would then have to walk or ride buses from their destinations, requiring additional infrastructure.
Eggleston said the feasibility report suggests building two train stations in Garner, one serving the downtown area and a second to serve the Auburn-East Garner area. A train station in Clayton would be ideally located near the intersection of Highway 42 and US 70.
Commissioners took no action on the report. Commissioner Tony Braswell pointed out there is no dedicated funding in the current budget to pay for the infrastructure or yearly operating costs of commuter rail service in Johnston County. Commissioner Patrick Harris agreed saying it was a great idea but questioned how to pay for the service. Chairman Ted Godwin stated, “These numbers scare me.”
Eggleston said the next step is a $9 million study for additional engineering work. Johnston County Commissioners in April agreed to fund $250,000 towards the cost. Wake County will pay $6 million and Durham County $2.7 million. There is no obligation from Johnston County to pay for any additional work beyond $250,000.
“I have long been a champion and supporter of commuter rail here in Johnston County,” said Chris Johnson, Director of Johnston County Economic Development. “Like many transportation projects, yes this will mean more opportunities for our residents to live in Johnston County and travel into Raleigh to work. However I see it also as a great opportunity to build industrial and office capacity along the rail route for those that may want to live in Raleigh and then work in Johnston. (i.e., Caterpillar, Grifols, Novo, Sysco, and future development in Eastfield) You see this type of regional growth along the rail corridors in areas such as Atlanta, Washington and other urban centers. As one of our County Commissioners stated, we need to not look at what is needed today or in 5 years, but what is needed in 20 years from now and plan accordingly.”
Selma Mayor Cheryl Oliver said, “Commuter rail will be a tremendous boost to the economic development of Selma and surrounding areas. We know that when commuter rail comes to an area, residential and business growth follow. Having commuter rail in Selma will allow more of our citizens to pursue a wider variety of jobs and educational opportunities as well as encourage those outside Selma to consider job opportunities in Johnston County and Selma. This dynamic will build stronger communities and a stronger region.”
GoTriangle representatives said the very earliest commuter rail service could start in the Triangle is 10 years from now. Whether that service expands east of Garner into Johnston County remains to be seen. The report suggests the chance to receive up to 50 percent in federal funding to pay for the commuter rail project has at best a ‘medium’ chance for a Durham to Garner route. A route farther east to Clayton has a ‘weak-medium’ chance and a route to Selma was ranked ‘medium-low’ to receive any federal funding.