For more than 15 years, Michelle Durst commuted from Cary to North Raleigh for her full-time job in sales. At first, the drive wasn’t too bad.

“I would get on the exit at Tryon, then get off at Wake Forest,” she says. “Traffic would pretty much keep moving. Then … as time went on, the Cary traffic going into Raleigh became so bad I would start taking back roads.”

Today, the 30-mile commute can take up to an hour, or even more if there’s a car accident or construction, which seems constantly ongoing. Like many people, Durst began working from home following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. She sells windows and doors, so although in-person engagements were limited, business was still booming.

“Thank goodness I don’t have to do [the drive] now with all the road construction on I-440, because it’s even worse,” she says. “I’ll go in occasionally for appointments in the showroom, but I can schedule them around rush hour.”

During the pandemic, many daily commuters found relief in working from home,  getting back two or more hours they had previously spent in traffic. But the drive from Raleigh to Durham, which thousands of people take every day, is still one of the most congested in the Triangle, with I-40 narrowing to just two lanes west of exit 270, the interchange with U.S. 15-501. According to government officials, public transportation may be the solution.

The future of Triangle traffic

The Triangle’s rush-hour commute is nothing compared to hours-long gridlocks drivers face in cities like Atlanta, Houston, or Washington, DC. But with so many people pouring into the area, commuters could be dealing with similar traffic conditions within the next 30 years, experts predict.

The population of the Triangle is expected to climb from 1.6 million today to 2.5 million by 2050, a 56 percent increase, according to the NC Office of State Budget and Management. Consequently, drive times from Raleigh to Durham and around the beltline are expected to shoot up, far surpassing the 45- to 60-minute commute many drivers currently deal with.

As of 2016, traffic on I-40 and I-440 ranged from moderately congested during rush hour to consistently congested “throughout and beyond the peak hours of travel,” according to a report released last year from the NC Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (NC CAMPO).

In the words of social media commenters, the traffic is “god awful,” “a nightmare,” and “horrible and get[ting] worse.” When one aspiring commuter asked for tips for the commute between Raleigh and Durham, online commenters suggested a teleporter, helicopter, or fast-acting anti-anxiety medication.

I-40 and I-440 are expected to be even more bogged down by traffic by 2050, even during non-peak hours. Moreover, back roads around these major highways will also face high traffic congestion where traffic is now relatively free-flowing.

What is the commuter rail project?

This problem isn’t a new one. County officials started taking a closer look at the area’s transportation system more than a decade ago, back when growth was still relatively slow. In 2011, voters in Durham County approved a half-cent tax increase to fund expanded bus services, a light rail line, and a regional commuter rail line—37 miles of track that would connect Garner to Raleigh to Durham, sharing existing railway lines.

“​​Durham needs good local and regional public transit,” says County Commissioner Brenda Howerton. “Our Durham County Transit Plan outreach … revealed that the [commuter rail] project had support as one element of a robust comprehensive public transit system.”

Likewise, voters in Wake County also approved a half-cent tax increase to fund expanded bus service and support the commuter rail project, which at the time was still a rough proposal yet to be studied in depth.

“As people continue to move to Raleigh, we have to find a way to get ahead of road congestion,” says Mayor Pro Tem Corey Branch, also a board member for GoTriangle, which operates the Triangle’s public transportation and plans future improvement projects.

Raleigh Union Station. Credit: Brett Villena

“We’re starting to become a society where owning a car is a challenge. So if you don’t have a vehicle, how do you get around? How do we connect people to jobs, how do we connect people to social activities?”

Since voters approved the tax increase, Raleigh has taken significant steps to improve bus service but remains stalled on commuter rail. The Durham light rail project—meant to connect Durham to Chapel Hill with 18 miles of track—is now infamous for crashing and burning in early 2019. The project cost taxpayers in Durham and Orange Counties $157 million before ultimately failing, thanks in part to Duke University pulling its support.

“If you ask 10 people why the Durham light rail failed, you’ll get 10 different answers,” says Charles Lattuca, president of GoTriangle. “Some people will say it was Duke … some people will say it was [railroad company] Norfolk Southern, and some people will say the state kept moving the goalpost on the money.”

GoTriangle has learned its lesson from the Durham light rail project, Lattuca says. Part of the reason it failed was because solid agreements weren’t in place before design and engineering work began, Lattuca says. This time, GoTriangle plans to get solid agreements before they start spending money.

“I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on who’s responsible. What I do try to spend time on is identifying the risk and making sure that we are appropriately addressing it,” Lattuca says. “This time around … we’re doing a better job making sure that our key stakeholders, meaning North Carolina Railroad, Norfolk Southern, Duke, and the other institutional stakeholders, are on board before we start spending a lot of money.”

Money, money, money

Following the failure of the Durham light rail, GoTriangle officials restarted work on the regional commuter rail, releasing a new “feasibility study” just last week. The study paints an inspiring picture of the future of public transportation in the Triangle, but the project faces major challenges.

The proposed commuter rail could cost up to $3.2 billion, far more than local counties can afford even if the federal government supplied half of the funding, according to the study. Getting that federal funding is also a challenge. The Triangle’s population is too low right now to qualify for a major federal grant called the New Starts Program, which covers 50 percent of the cost of major transit projects.

“I don’t think the program does a good job of taking into account rapidly urbanizing areas like Raleigh,” Lattuca says. “It does a great job of taking into account heavily urbanized areas like New York and Baltimore and DC. But for us, we don’t have that population density yet.”

There are federal loans the project might qualify for, where the Triangle would borrow 100 percent of the money needed for commuter rail and then pay back all of it within the next few decades. Overall, that option could be less expensive than the New Starts Program, which requires payment up front, according to Lattuca.

“The good thing about these [loan] programs is … the payback doesn’t start until after the project starts operating,” he says. “So if it takes you 10 years to build, you don’t have to pay anything back until after you start running trains. And then they let you pay it back over 35 years. If you look at the impact on local transit dollars, it actually might even be less than the 50-50 program.”

Overall, the commuter rail project is just too expensive to build all at once, as originally planned. Instead, GoTriangle is proposing to build the project in phases. But that plan also comes with its own problems. As expensive as commuter rail is now, it will be even more expensive as time passes because of inflation.

“Inflation is eating up the dollars like crazy,” Lattuca says. “The bipartisan infrastructure law that Congress passed … back in the summer was a huge amount of money. About a billion dollars of that got eaten up by inflation in one year. If I can build one of these sections now instead of later, that would save us hundreds of millions of dollars.”

A phased approach

The commuter rail project is currently divided into three phases—an eastern section going from Auburn Station in Garner to Raleigh’s Union Station, a central section going from Raleigh to a new station RTP (which could potentially involve a relocation of Cary’s Amtrak station), and a western section going from RTP through Durham.

For years, officials have aspired to connect Raleigh to Durham through public transportation. But the western section of commuter rail, which does just that, is by far the most expensive and complicated section to build. The 10 miles of track connecting the proposed RTP Station to West Durham Station is expected to cost $1.6 billion and take 12 years to build, according to the study.

“The [study] has shown that there are significant infrastructure and cost challenges for the project—particularly in Durham,” Howerton says. “Commuter rail in Durham will require a longer-term approach, reduced costs, and/or additional revenue sources in order to make it happen.”

Lattuca puts it more bluntly.

“Durham to RTP is the least affordable phase,” he says. “We think the middle phase is very affordable, and then the short 10-mile phase [in the east] is really affordable. If you think of the project as 40 miles, that middle segment is only $1 billion. You’re delivering almost half the project for one-third of the cost.”

GoTriangle CEO Chuck Lattuca Credit: Stefan Walz/GoTriangle

One of the biggest issues with the western section is that only a single track goes through the area, and trains often stop on it for hours at a time to load and unload goods in East Durham’s rail yard. The delay presents a major problem for a commuter train, which would run about 40 trips a day, Lattuca says.

A commuter railway would require building all-new tracks in the area, an expensive prospect. Not only that, but building track through downtown Durham also presents challenges since the city has numerous low bridges that trains can’t pass beneath. Construction would involve closing some streets and doing major renovations on others.

In order to start construction on the commuter rail, all parties involved have to agree to a plan on how and when to build it. Not only do North Carolina Railroad, Norfolk Southern, and a host of other agencies have to get on board, but Wake, Durham, and Johnston county commissioners then have to agree to fund the project as outlined.

One of the major points of conflict is over which part of the rail will be built first. Starting with the eastern and central sections of the commuter rail would be much easier, but connecting these areas is also much less of a priority for Durham commissioners.

“It’s problematic because we have an early goal of connecting Durham and Raleigh. [But that western section] would have to come at some other point in time,” Lattuca says. “If we were to build the middle phase, we would work towards building out the entire system as proposed, it would just take longer. It’s causing some frustration with folks.”

Howerton says the commuter rail needs to include a “strong regional transit connection to downtown Durham, the GoDurham bus system, and Durham’s population and employment centers.”

“The central and eastern segments fall short of that and would require alternative transit service connections through central Durham,” she added. “We want to hear from the public on if the phased approach would be a good option and/or if we should consider other regional solutions. Durham has to be a part of the regional transit system no matter what approach is taken.”

GoTriangle is asking for input on its commuter rail plan. The public comment period is open through February 19. One of the goals of gathering this input is to determine which phase should be built first, or whether the planned sections should be modified, says Branch.

“It’s all about identifying what that phase looks like that better serves the people,” he says.

Will we ever have a local rail system?

Lattuca says it’s not unusual for projects of this size to take decades to complete. Moving from design to engineering and land acquisition can take anywhere from 10 to 20 years before construction even starts. Building the railway can then take years more.

The lengthy lead time for commuter rail isn’t the project’s biggest problem, however. The whole point of the Triangle commuter rail project is to build for the future, for the people who will move to the Triangle in 2040 or later, according to Branch.

“What we’re building is for the next generation. I want to see a region where everyone has the ability to access opportunities, to better the lives of their families …. We have to make sure we’re forward-thinking because if we think about self, we’ll never get anything done.”

In many major cities, the process of building large, complex, and expensive transit projects began after the population had already boomed, Lattuca says.

“[In Maryland and DC], we were trying to solve a problem that already existed. Here we have the opportunity to solve a problem before it becomes bad,” he says. “It’s going to be much easier to acquire real estate when not everybody is up against the rail corridor. It’s going to be a lot easier to build something now when the demand on the highway is not impossible.”

According to Lattuca, commuter rail is only one piece of the overall solution.

“It’s really a three-legged stool,” he says. “We need to have a lot of investment and growth in our local buses, and also these bus rapid transit projects that are being considered and built by Raleigh and Chapel Hill. What we have in Atlanta, Baltimore, and New York are transit systems. Here we don’t have a unified transit system.”

Wake residents like Durst who are burned out on commuting say, for now, that it’s still probably easier to drive within the county than to use public transportation.

“I wonder about the convenience of [a commuter rail], depending on where you’re picking it up, where it drops off,” Durst says.

For longer trips, though—from Cary to Durham, for instance—Durst says she’d make an exception.

“If I had to go into RTP, definitely [I’d take public transportation], because that traffic is crazy crazy,” she says. “But just around the beltline—I would probably still drive.” 

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.       

Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to Comment on this story at