High-Speed Rail North Carolina Richmond Triangle NC

Southeast High-Speed Rail Releases Detailed Proposals for Raleigh-Richmond Corridor

» Project would halve travel time between the two state capitals, but it’s not yet an extension of the Northeast Corridor towards the south.

Yesterday, the Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor planning group (SEHSR) — a project run by the North Carolina Department of Transportation in association with the State of Virginia — released its draft environmental impact study (DEIS) for the 162-mile Raleigh-Richmond passenger rail route. The DEIS will undergo public review over the next two months in preparation for an eventual grant submission to the Federal Railroad Administration for up to three billion dollars to pursue the completion of this project over the next decade.

SEHSR is not proposing true high-speed rail: its trains will be limited to 110 mph, be powered by diesel locomotives, and be limited to single tracks along several route segments. But the project is nonetheless quite ambitious. Whereas current Amtrak service between the two capitals takes almost four hours, this project would reduce travel times to two hours by rerouting trains onto a more direct route and speeding travel. Whereas current service averages around 47 mph, the proposal would allow average speeds of 86 mph, a vast improvement.

If fully implemented, the states would offer four daily round trips between Raleigh and Washington, D.C. along the corridor. A final decision about exact route choices will be made next year.

Neither the Federal Railroad Administration nor the States of North Carolina or Virginia have yet committed significant funding to the completion of this project, though the two states did receive a total of $620 million from Washington in January thanks to the ARRA stimulus bill. Those funds will allow the construction of a third track between Richmond and Washington, D.C. and allow North Carolina to increase speeds to 90 mph between Raleigh and Charlotte, the state’s largest city.

SEHSR’s long-term plans would reduce travel times along the 450-mile route between Charlotte and Washington to between 6h10 and 6h50, down from 9h40 on the Carolinian today (though the Crescent runs a separate route in 8h07). The primary time savings in the medium-term would come from the implementation of this Raleigh to Richmond corridor. A direct route between Raleigh and Charlotte (trains between the cities now take an round-about route to serve Durham and Greensboro), long mentioned as a possibility to speed trains to Atlanta, would be similarly effective, but that project is far off.

Today, Amtrak Carolinian trains travel along a circuitous route through Rocky Mount, North Carolina between Raleigh and Richmond. In this study, SEHSR has proposed moving most of those trains to the 35-mile-shorter CSX-owned alignment that parallels U.S. 1. The states hope to reach agreement with the freight rail company to increase speeds to 110 mph by eliminating all grade crossings along the route (requiring the closing or bridging of more than 100 crossings) and by including five-mile siding tracks every ten miles along the single-track corridor.

This closing of the corridor to vehicle traffic would increase safety and allow for the eventual conversion to electric locomotion if warranted. The report states that “The current designs will not preclude conversion to electricity in the future, thus allowing higher speeds.” Such an investment would basically mean the extension of the Northeast Corridor south from Washington — and indeed, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman suggested last year that electrification from Washington to Richmond was one of his top priorities. That possibility, however, remains far in the future; it’s not included in the funding estimates here. And though this more limited proposal has merit, it is in competition with dozens of other proposals from around the country, so it has no guarantee of being funded anytime soon.

Even if funded, the SEHSR project does face a number of additional obstacles. In other states, CSX has proven to be a mediocre partner; after weeks of negotiations, the company finally agreed to let New York State use its corridor between Albany and Buffalo for new rail service, but it has yet to endorse the 110 mph trains that the state wants. Similarly, CSX demanded a large insurance policy from the State of Florida for the construction of the Orlando-area Sunrail line. Will North Carolina and Virginia be manhandled similarly?

Meanwhile, there are a number of alternative route alignments for this corridor that could pit local interests against statewide needs. In downtown Raleigh, two separate corridors are being considered; one would cost far more but the other may produce too much damage to a growing center city.

In recent years, though, both of these Mid-Atlantic states have been good custodians of their intercity rail networks; they’re likely to see this project through eventually. That is, as long as the federal government reaffirms its commitment to rail through continued annual appropriations, no sure thing in these cutback-ridden times.

Image above: Route options for Raleigh-Richmond Corridor of Southeast High-Speed Rail, from SEHSR

Finance North Carolina Triangle NC

North Carolina State Senate Moves Ahead on Local Sales Taxes

Following an April vote in the House, the Senate appears to be close to allowing the Triangle and Triad to fund new transit systems.

After years of controversy revolving around the regressive nature of sales tax increases, the North Carolina State Senate yesterday tentatively approved a measure that would allow citizens in the Triangle and Triad metropolitan areas the right to vote to increase their local sales taxes by a 1/2¢ on every dollar to pay for transit improvements. Mecklenburg County, which includes the state’s largest city Charlotte, has been taxing itself a similar amount since 1998 after the legislature allowed it and it alone to expand its tax base. The bill, if approved later this week as expected, will also allow other less urban areas in the state to push up sales taxes by 1/4¢ to fund transportation.

The measure passed the state house in April and will let the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill in the Triangle and Greensboro and Winston-Salem in the Triad construct ambitious new transit networks, but only if the citizenry of their surrounding counties can be cajoled into voting for tax increases. The state will require all counties wishing to fund transit to conduct local referenda before the sales taxes can be implemented. Votes are expected in 2010 if the economy improves sufficiently.

A DMU regional rail system connecting Raleigh and Durham came close to receiving federal funds in the early 2000s, but it was shot down because of Washington’s strenuous cost-efficiency regulations. A new regional advisory commission released a report in 2008 proposing an even more ambitious project, with lines reaching 50 miles through the Triangle region. New streetcars could serve the downtowns of the two inner cities, and many more buses would extend through what is one of America’s fastest growing regions. A 1/2¢ sales tax would be an efficient way of funding the new network.

Meanwhile, Greensboro and Winston-Salem have been planning a new light rail connector between each downtown, though their project is not as far advanced. The new tax, if approved, would allow planning and construction to go ahead.

Each region, however, is sprawling and will have a hard time meeting the cost-effectiveness guidelines required by the Feds because of likely low ridership compared to proposed lines in other cities. This barrier could be insurmountable unless they significantly reform their land use policy to encourage dense, station-oriented growth. Without money from Washington, both the Triangle and the Triad will be doomed to smaller and less effective transit lines.

North Carolina Streetcar Winston-Salem

Winston-Salem Proposes Modern Streetcar Line

Winston-Salem Streetcar MapNorth Carolina city would rely on stimulus money to complete state’s first trolley line.

As America’s streetcar renaissance continues, more and more medium-size cities are considering an investment in the mode. The latest addition to the game: Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a city of about 200,000 and the state’s fifth-largest. Transportation planners envision a 2.6 mile corridor financed by federal government stimulus funds that would redefine downtown mobility there.

The proposed trolley would run in a figure-8 pattern in mixed traffic and connect the central business district with a future commuter rail station that would provide service to nearby Greensboro if built in the next decade. Similar proposals have been under consideration since 2003.

Planners have contracted out with transportation planners HDR Engineering to analyze potential routes, whose cost would likely total $65 million. Attempting to leverage the benefits of improved transportation to increase commercial and residential development in the renewing downtown is one of the city’s primary priorities with the construction of the line.

A 2006 estimate of daily ridership indicated that 5,800 riders would take the streetcars each day in 2010 and 9,500 by 2025. This compares to a trolley bus running the route today which attracts a mere thirty-seven people a day; planners argue that the rail system would be able to vastly increase the number of people choosing to ride public transportation.

The federal government should have other priorities for streetcar funding — larger, more transit-oriented cities such as Seattle are applying for the same limited pot of money to build new trolley lines. Winston-Salem’s ridership estimates, on the other hand, are undoubtedly overestimates. Though the city’s downtown is being redeveloped, street activity remains minimal and a car culture predominates.

So what hope does a city like Winston-Salem have in investing in such a streetcar? Is there some minimal density or population that should be necessary before Washington decides to invest federal government revenues in a project?

There’s no easy answer to these questions. There is no question that investing in a new trolley would act as an economic development tool and improve the chances for the city to expand its downtown core. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine this system attracting fewer than 1,000 riders a day considering its limited destinations and the anemic ridership on the existing downtown trolley bus. As with other recent proposals, this project suffers from underambition; it’s simply too short a line to attract many users.

If the federal government finds this project fiscally unjustifiable, Winston-Salem could invest its own funds in the project, of course. After all, why is Washington’s money somehow more expendable than local spending? Shouldn’t cities like Winston-Salem, which have spent the last fifty years finding anyway possible to avoid building livable communities, have to take some step in favor of transit before Washington throws its money at an questionable project?

Meanwhile, highway funds, which are distributed to metropolitan planning organizations, are mostly “flex” dollars that could be spent on transit programs — if the city is willing to take the risk. Shouldn’t municipalities be willing to sacrifice their roads for the benefit of transit? I don’t think Winston-Salem is, but you never know.

Image above: 2005 streetcar plan, from the Winston-Salem Journal

Charlotte Finance North Carolina

Charlotte Business Taskforce Decides that Roads – Not Transit – Deserve More Funding

The North Carolina city, already incapable of funding its long-term transit plan, will likely not see more revenues dedicated to public transportation

The influential Committee of 21, a sort of local Rotary Club for discussing transportation issues in the Charlotte area, told the city council yesterday that any new transportation funding in the region should be dedicated to roads, not transit. Ned Curran, chair of the committee, said “I don’t want to be anti-transitMy company supported (the transit sales tax). We were against repeal, both with our voice and with our money. But where are we going to get money for roads?”  The committee’s statements reflect the mood of the city’s business community and may portend a less-than-ideal future for mass transit in North Carolina’s biggest city.

The argument goes something like this: Charlotte approved a 1/2¢ sales tax for transit back in 1998, and the business community helped work successfully against a repeal vote in 2007. Now, though, whatever the needs of the transit system, roads need to be better funded, because the region’s highways are not keeping up with demand. The development community – focused mostly on building single-family houses and office parks entirely designed for the auto-dependent – is adamant in its push for more roads.

Mayor Pat McCrory, who is retiring this year after seven terms as a tireless proponent of transit in the city, seems to concur, arguing that he wouldn’t support a new half-cent sales tax for transit. This is in spite of the fact that the recession has caused tax revenues to drop precipitously; the transit agency will not be able to complete all of the lines initially planned for the system. North Carolina’s State House recently approved a measure that would allow other regions in the state to raise their taxes for transit to Charlotte’s levels, but did not leave room for Charlotte to increase its revenues any more.

The committee’s proposal for a new half-cent sales tax for road construction is antithetical to the idea that Charlotte can reinvent itself into a compact, transit-oriented, and walkable city – a goal for which the city’s planners have been working since 1998. It also ignores the basic fact that the state gets hundreds of millions of dollars every year from the federal government specifically for new roads construction. In order for the city to qualify for federal transit New Start matching grants for new light rail or busway construction, on the other hand, the city must contribute a significant share of the costs, not true for roads. The argument in favor of increasing roads funding also ignores the fact that the city systematically underfunded public transportation for decades while investing heavily in roads throughout; doesn’t transit deserve to represent at least half of transportation costs now? Adding a new tax for roads – in addition to a vehicle registration fee and tolls also proposed by the committee to go towards highways – would tilt the balance back towards automobiles disastrously.

Who is represented on the Committee of 21? The chair, Mr. Curran, just happens to be the head of The Bissell Companies, a real estate group whose investments have been – surprise, surprise – primarily in car-oriented offices, hotels, and golf clubs. Why might he have an interest in promoting more roads? Though several of the other members include people who have offices in Uptown Charlotte (one or two also live at least near downtown), the fact remains that this is a business group organized by the Charlotte Chamber that represents people who are for the most part completely wedded to their cars and who, unsurprisingly, want more highways. To think that this group, which has so much influence over decisions made by the very business-oriented Charlotte city council, will come out against more transit funding, saddens me because it indicates that the advances made so far by this southern city may be ephemeral.

That said, no decisions have yet been made, and there’s little guarantee that the Committee of 21’s suggested 1/2¢ sales tax for roads will gain any traction – especially since it would need approval from the state legislature to go anywhere. But the seeming lack of local political support for a financial lift-up for the transit system is depressing. Looks like Charlotte really will have to decide between two competing transit proposals, because it’s certainly not going to be able to afford both at this rate…

Finance North Carolina Triangle NC

North Carolina Opens Up to Local-Option Sales Taxes

New funding capacity will allow for improved transit in the Triad and Triangle Metro Areas

Several metropolitan areas in North Carolina have been toying around with the idea of implementing local sales taxes for transportation for quite a while now, after Bush-era policies made it impossible to rely on federal funds to provide the majority of funds for transit capital projects in areas without a steady tax funding source. One problem, however, was that the state has not allowed the creation of such revenue sources outside of the state’s biggest city Charlotte, which approved a 1/2¢ dedicated transit sales tax in 1998. As a result, detailed plans to improve transit in both the Raleigh/Durham Triangle and the Greensboro/Winston-Salem Triad fell by the wayside.

Over the past few years, however, advocates in both areas have been pushing forward with new proposals for transit expansion, especially after the notable success of Charlotte’s LYNX light rail system, which opened in late 2007. The Triangle has been developing an extensive 20-year plan to connect Raleigh, Cary, Durham, and Chapel Hill via electric light rail (diesel multiple unit service, the original plan, was abandoned); the project would also involve new bus rapid transit lines, a commuter rail service reaching into the region’s suburbs, and downtown streetcar circulators. The Triad’s less advanced project would connect Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point with light rail. The strong effort by local officials to advance their respective projects has encouraged state legislators to pass legislation that would allow inhabitants of the two areas to increase taxes on themselves.

And indeed, yesterday, the State House passed legislation that would allow inhabitants of the counties in the Triangle and the Triad to vote to increase their sales taxes by a 1/2¢ to fund transit. Each would also be able to increase annual car registration fees from the current $5 per car to $8. The Triangle alone would gain about $90 million a year for transit this way. Other less populous counties around the state, if the measure passes the State Senate and is signed by Governor Beverly Purdue, would be able to increase their sales taxes by 1/4¢ to allow for similar improvements. Charlotte, which has its own funding problems, will not be able to increase its sales taxes any more.

For years, the Triangle and Triad have been held back from increasing their sales taxes locally by state legislators who are either to the right and didn’t want to increase taxes at all or who are to the left and didn’t want sales taxes – proportionately worse for the poor – to do the work. While I’m quite sympathetic to the argument that sales taxes are regressive, real estate interests in quickly-growing North Carolina are simply too strong politically to allow for more progressive property tax or real estate transfer tax increases. In addition, a sales tax for transit – a public service used proportionately more by those in the lower half of the economic spectrum – seems relatively reasonable.

If the State Senate moves past its previous objections, the next step in the process will require county commissions to choose to allow their respective electorates to vote in referendums as early as next year on sales tax increases. If approved by voters, final engineering on proposed lines could begin and New Start funds for the Triangle and Triad projects could be secured if they’re competitive. The earliest date for commercial service would be 2015 or so.

One problem not yet resolved is the fact that because each metro area extends across several counties, funding and planning priorities are not necessarily matching. Therefore, even if the tax resolution passes in all affected counties – three in the Triangle and two in the Triad – local authorities representing completely different interests will have to agree on which projects to prioritize. This is especially a problem in these cities, because neither region benefits from one central downtown where transit lines would coalesce. Rather, as made clear by their nicknames, both regions are polycentric. In the Triangle, we’re likely to see fighting between politicians in Raleigh and Durham; in the Triad, we’ll see conflict between Winston-Salem and Greensboro. Resolution isn’t likely to be easy.

As a native of Durham, I’m quite excited to see the state legislature finally getting its act together. If anything, Charlotte proves than North Carolinians are just as likely to use well-designed transit as people anywhere else in the country – the huge popular margin in 2007 against a proposed repeal of the sales tax in that city even before the light rail service had opened suggests that people there are very much in support of public transportation. Will the voters in the Triangle and Triad agree to increase their taxes to make a similar point? We’ll likely find out in 2010.