A new plan for rail transit in the Triangle is coming down the tracksif at a crawl. An optimistic forecast is that, if approved by the voters in 2011 or 2012, it would bring localized light-rail passenger services to parts of the region by the early 2020s, or about 25 years behind Charlotte. Until then, the emphasis would be on improved bus service and heavy commuter trains similar to Amtrak connecting Raleigh, Durham and their respective suburbs, only at rush hour.

The old plan for frequent light-rail transit between Raleigh and Durham, which was designed to spark a dense development corridor through the center of the region, has been shelvedperhaps permanently.

There’s not a lot of political energy behind the new plan, either. What momentum does exist comes from the General Assembly’s enactment last summer of legislation to allow a half-cent sales tax for transit in Wake, Durham and Orange counties. That legislation, however, requires voter approval county by county, and it gave the board of commissioners in each county the power to schedule the referendum (or not) and to approve any plan for spending the money its county generated.

Three counties, three transit plans

In Wake County, the commissioners are considering a draft plan that includes a light-rail transit line from downtown Raleigh to the northeast in an existing rail corridor that parallels Capital Boulevard. The plan is to build the service as far as Triangle Town Center (at I-540) in the first 10 years, with future connections possible to Wake Forest and southern Franklin County. Initially, a western light-rail spur would run from downtown Raleigh only as far as the State Fairgrounds. A connection to Cary would follow four years later (in 2024 at the earliest), with a subsequent extension going either to Apex or to Research Triangle Park sometime after 2030. A link-up with Durham County, therefore, could be decades off.

Durham County is looking at a rail-transit line from East Durham (Alston Avenue) through downtown Durham to a connection with Orange County close to the I-40/N.C. 54 interchange. The connection could be made at the old Leigh Farm, tentatively designated as a metro hub called Leigh Village, according to Woodard. Orange County, too, is focused on light-rail in the so-called U.S. 15-501 corridor, linking Chapel Hill to Durham and UNC to Duke University.

Instead of frequent light-rail transit between Durham and Raleigh, the region’s two center cities, some officials are coalescing behind the idea of rush-hour rail on heavy passenger trains (including Amtrak) that are built to share existing freight-line tracks. A light-rail system would require a new set of tracks separated from the freight cars. Others, though, question whether putting money into rush-hour rail cars would doom the chance of ever connecting Durham’s light-rail line to Raleigh’s.

The Durham and Wake plans call for enhanced regional bus services. Wake’s plan would put 45 new buses into service in the first two years after passage of the half-cent sales tax, increasing bus miles in the county by about one-third. The new routes would connect the western- and easternmost parts of Wake to Raleigh in the center. Durham, according to Mike Woodard, Durham City Council member and chair of the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro (DCHC) also expects to emphasize better bus service as its “major objective” for transit in the next seven to eight years. City officials, he says, are in discussions with the Triangle Transit Authority about turning over the DATA (Durham area) bus operations to the TTA. That decision may come within a month.

The upshot is that the counties are developing separate plans (see box at right) that they may present to the voters as a coordinated package in the next two or three years. How coordinated it will be remains an open question, though, and the subject of a lot of behind-the-scenes debate.

A leadership group comprised of county and city officials in Wake, Durham and Orange counties has been meeting every six weeks or so for nearly a year, according to Mike Woodard, a Durham City Council member and chair of the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro (DCHC) transportation planning organization. They’ve agreed that the three county referendums should be held simultaneously, Woodard says. They’ve also agreed that, while each county’s plan should stand on its own, “When we go to the voters, the question will be how do they all connect up?”

In other words, would the plans eventually come together as a single, regional system? Or would they develop as two or three separated, disconnected systems?

The group’s tentative target date for the three referendums is the fall of 2011, Woodard says. But that timetable is complicated by the fact that Raleigh and Cary hold their municipal elections in October, while everyone else in the region votes in November. The legislation requires the sales tax to be approved at a regular (rather than a special) election. Thus, Raleigh and Cary could vote first in 2011, with everyone else a month later; alternatively, Raleigh and Cary could hold a second electiontheir part of the Wake referenduma month later, in November. Or the referendum date could be pushed to May 2012, when statewide primary elections are scheduled and the entire region will be voting.

“At their most basic, the current proposals would provide Raleigh a light-rail line heading in from its western and northern suburbs, and Durham would get a light-rail line to the southwest,” says analyst Yonah Freemark, a Durham native who writes the online newsletter TransportPolitic.com. “The goal espoused by planners in the early 2000s of connecting the region’s two largest cities has been laid by the wayside, reserved for a second phase.”

At the Wake Commissioners’ retreat, where a draft transit plan was unveiled, Triangle Transit Authority General Manager David King said the emerging plans make sense financially and operationally. Light-rail transit, with frequent stops on separate tracks, costs about $50 million-$60 million a mile to build and works best in densely populated cities, he said.

Commuter rail, which he termed “express rail,” uses heavier cars that would stop in fewer places (Raleigh, Cary, Durham). For both reasons, it would make faster connections between stops. And at $12 million-$15 million a mile, it would be cheaper, assuming the heavier cars could continue to share the existing freight tracks as Amtrak trains currently do.

Also, because the freight tracks already exist, commuter rail trains can be in operation within six to seven years of the passage of the sales-tax referenda, he said. Light rail will take 10 years or more to get off the ground.

Woodard agrees. “Everybody’s trying to compare us to something,” he says, “and I think the best comparison is with Dallas-Fort Worth, not Charlotte.” Dallas and Fort Worth have separate transit systems and a commuter rail connection of some 25 miles, with an airport in between; Charlotte, on the other hand, is one city at the center of a region.

“Light rail from Raleigh to Durham doesn’t make sense because of what’s in the middle,” Woodard says. If you get off at sprawling Research Triangle Park, he asks, “Where do you go from there? You’d have to get on a bus.”

Durham Mayor Bill Bell, on the other hand, says he still prefers using light rail between his city and Raleigh as well as within them. “Long term, I’m not convinced, if we start with the express rail, we’ll ever get the light-rail [connection],” the Herald-Sun quoted Bell as saying recently when Bull City officials met with King

It’s not clear as yet whether Triangle Transit would operate a regional commuter-rail service, according to King. It could be the state Department of Transportation, which already operates the Amtrak trains through Raleigh and Durham, or some new partnership of the two. The service would use a corridor leased to the freight railroads (who share it with Amtrak) by the state-owned North Carolina Railroad Company (NCRR).

The corridor runs from Raleigh southeast to the coast, and from Raleigh northwest through Cary, Durham and on to Burlington, Greensboro and eventually to Charlotte.

The existence of the corridor has led to talk within the Raleigh business community, encouraged by NCRR, that commuter rail cars could carry rush-hour passengers into and out of Raleigh from Clayton and the rest of sprawling Johnston Countyas well as from Durham. They could also bring commuters into and out of Durham from Hillsborough, Burlington and points westas well as from Raleigh.

In this view, rather than invest in an expensive light-rail system to transform land use in the region, a smaller investment in commuter rail would help service the sprawl by taking car traffic off I-40.

The advent of increased federal funding for rail transportation by the Obama administration, after eight years of the very transit-unfriendly Bush presidency, has local officials hoping for new money from Washington as well, though it’s yet to materialize.

“Federal stimulus money will help the commuter rail parts of this plan in ways we’re still figuring out,” King says. A recent $545 million grant to the state for high-speed rail will be spent mostly on track improvements from Greensboro to Charlotte. But future high-speed funds could help to pay for track upgrades in the Triangle, he says, and other programs to support rail transit may follow.

Wake County, which accounts for 70 percent of the Triangle’s population and will control about the same percentage of transit-tax receipts, is highly interested in spending some of that money on track improvements between Raleigh and Johnston County, according to its draft plan. (And under the legislation, Johnston County itself could enact a quarter-cent sales tax for transit with voter approval.)

Wake isn’t interested, though, in spending money on a Durham connection, at least not for at least 15 years, says Commissioner Joe Bryan, the Wake board’s leader on transportation issues.

When King asked, at the commissioners’ retreat, whether Wake would consider at some point paying part of the cost of extending light rail from Cary to an RTP station a mile over the border in Durham County, Bryan said it shouldn’t happen until 2025 at the earliest. “We have a big system to build ourselves,” Bryan answered.

Correction (March 10, 2010): Light-rail transit costs about $50 million-$60 million per mile, not per year, as the print version of this article stated.