Light rail not on agenda

pseligson@newsobserver.comMarch 21, 2014 

Light rail is far from the Johnston County horizon, but County Commissioners are making sure they have “a seat at the table” with the rest of the Triangle.

At the commissioners’ March meeting, Commissioners Ted Godwin and Cookie Pope talked briefly about light rail. The two mentioned a newspaper article that said current plans for light rail called for it to stop at the Wake-Johnston border.

At that meeting, commissioners decided to build bridges to Triangle Transit and the regional groups looking into light rail. They plan to have someone meet soon with Triangle Transit leaders.

“If they’re going to have a meeting to discuss it, I would like to know about their meeting and at least look over their shoulder and see what’s talked about,” Godwin said in an interview.

Godwin said commissioners aren’t lobbying for light rail, nor are they sure it will ever be right for Johnston County. But they want to make sure they know what the rest of the region is doing.

“I don’t think we’re ready at this point to sit down and commit funds or anything like that,” Godwin said. “But I think we would be sticking our head in the sand if we didn’t look to the future and be part of that planning process and be aware of it.”

Durham, Orange and Wake counties are taking steps toward bringing light rail to the Triangle. Voters in Durham and Orange have already approved a half-cent sales-tax increase to support building the infrastructure. In February, the Federal Transit Administration gave Triangle Transit permission to move forward on light rail between Durham and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Wake County Commissioners are still debating whether they will get involved.

David King, general manager of Triangle Transit, said if Johnston County did end up with rail transportation, it would be commuter rail, not light rail. Light rail, found in urban areas, uses electrified rail. Commuter rail, King said, uses diesel locomotives and looks similar to Amtrak.

King said Johnston County leaders simply need to meet with him and his staff if they are interested. But the big question for any community is how much it’s willing to pay, he said. Adding rail takes a huge capital investment. Among the costs: New tracks must be laid or old tracks changed. For Durham and Wake counties, the cost estimate is about $650 million.

As for whether commuter rail is feasible for Johnston County, “that’s really for the citizens of Johnston County to figure out,” King said. The roads many Johnston County commuters use to get to Raleigh and Research Triangle Park are under stress, especially with the Fortify project, he said.

“We need to be thinking collectively, including the Johnston County folks, about five, 10, 15 years from now and how we're going to cope with our continued growth,” King said. “You see all the numbers we do about the greater Raleigh area being right at the top of growth across the country. The question is, how do you deal with that?”

Even if Johnston County decided to pursue commuter rail today, it would still take about five years to build the system. King said he doesn’t know what a ticket would cost; the cost would likely be similar to the current express bus routes, which are $2.50 each way, plus inflation, he said.

Pope, the county commissioner, attended transit meetings when light rail talks first started in the Triangle. She said the big question is whether Johnston County citizens would ride the rail if the county built it.

“We’re all so dependent on our automobiles,” Pope said. If the rail connected to downtown Raleigh, for instance, people wouldn’t ride it unless they were sure they could get around the city by other public transportation.

Two other questions on the table: “Is it more cost effective, and is it environmentally more friendly?” Pope said.

She said the wear-and-tear on highways will be a driving factor in this discussion. So will cost and whether the county could find state and federal money to help pay for the infrastructure, she said.

Seligson: 919-836-5768

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