Higher cost means Triangle commuter rail will likely have to be built in phases

The rising cost of a proposed commuter rail line through the Triangle means the project would likely have to be completed in phases rather than built all at once as originally planned.

What section would be built first is unclear. GoTriangle, the regional transit agency, and local governments in Durham, Wake and Johnston counties will have to agree on the phases before the project can move forward, said Charles Lattuca, GoTriangle’s CEO and president.

“If we were to do the whole project — if we could afford the whole project — we wouldn’t be scrambling here,” Lattuca told members of the GoTriangle board Wednesday. “So now we have to have a much more complex decision-making process.”

GoTriangle estimated in early 2020 that it would cost about $2 billion to build a roughly 40-mile commuter rail line within an existing rail corridor from the west side of Durham to either Garner or Clayton. After doing a more detailed feasibility study, it now says the project would cost between $2.8 billion and $3.2 billion.

Inflation accounts for about a third of the additional cost, Lattuca said. The rest comes from engineering challenges discovered during the feasibility study and measures that Norfolk Southern, which controls much of the rail line, would require to ensure its freight trains can continue running smoothly.

The higher cost means the project would likely not qualify for a federal program that pays 50% toward constructing new transit systems, Lattuca said. It also means the transit taxes in Durham and Wake wouldn’t generate enough money to cover the local share before construction got started.

“Those two things combined make us look at this phased approach,” he said.

Building in phases means the commuter line would take longer to build and ultimately cost more because of inflation over a longer time period, said Katharine Eggleston, GoTriangle’s chief development officer.

“But it helps manage our risks and match the project development timeline to the available resources,” Eggleston told board members.

Commuter rail line breaks down into three sections

GoTriangle would still aim to finish the first phase in about a decade, somewhere between 2033 and 2035. Each subsequent phase could take five years to complete, Lattuca said, though it’s not clear how many phases there would be.

GoTriangle estimates that people would make 12,000 to 18,000 trips per day on the completed commuter rail line in 2040. Each phase would handle a fraction of that.

The 40-mile line breaks down into three sections: the western leg through Durham to Research Triangle Park; the middle from RTP to downtown Raleigh; and the eastern leg from Raleigh to the east end.

The eastern leg would be the easiest and cheapest to build, because of fewer engineering challenges, Eggleston said. It would cost an estimated $600 million to $700 million, she said, and take eight years to complete.

The middle leg, through Cary and Morrisville to RTP or Ellis Road in Durham, would cost $800 million to $1 billion and take about a decade to complete, she said.

The most difficult and expensive leg runs through Durham, where building a second track would require more work to crossings, bridges and sidings. It would cost $1.4 billion to $1.6 billion and take a dozen years to complete, Eggleston said.

If GoTriangle ends up postponing work on the western leg, it’s possible some of the track improvements could be done in the meantime with help from other state and federal programs. Durham County commissioners voted this week to seek a federal grant to help plan to fix or eliminate three crossings east of the city, which would benefit the commuter rail project, Eggleston said.

Lattuca said the first phase of the commuter rail would have to include RTP, and said the middle leg is probably the best place to start. But he said GoTriangle will need to get buy-in from the public and local governments for the entire system before moving forward.

“We have to show them how we can build phases,” he said. “Also how can we build confidence with folks that if we do one phase that we’ll do other phases. That’s another thing we have to work on.”

GoTriangle hopes to present its feasibility study to the public in January and seek feedback. Sig Hutchinson, who heads the GoTriangle board and is outgoing Wake County commissioners chairman, said he hopes local governments can agree on a phased approach before then.

“I do think we need rapid and proactive engagement with elected leaders and boards, with us and with staff, to understand what the options are and try to centralize around what a particular option would be that we could potentially take to the public,” Hutchinson told transit board members.

Commuter rail for non-traditional commutes

The train line was conceived as a way to primarily help commuters avoid the Triangle’s worsening morning and evening traffic. Under the original proposal, trains would make 20 round trips a day — eight during each busy commuting time and two during each off-peak period.

But as people continue to work part-time at home after the COVID-19 pandemic, the feasibility study also proposes an option of running fewer trains during traditional commuting hours and more throughout the day. The study also notes that traditional transit riders are more likely to have other than 9-to-5 work schedules, making off-peak trains a better option.

The proposal calls for 15 stations: West Durham, downtown Durham, East Durham, Ellis Road, RTP, Morrisville, downtown Cary, Corporate Center Drive, Blue Ridge Road, N.C. State University, downtown Raleigh, Hammond Road, Garner, Auburn and Clayton. There’s room for new park-and-ride lots at nine of those stations, according to the feasibility study.

The proposed commuter rail line would stop at 15 stations in the Triangle from Durham to Clayton.
The proposed commuter rail line would stop at 15 stations in the Triangle from Durham to Clayton.

But some passengers would get to those stations by bus. Corey Branch, a Raleigh City Council member who sits on the GoTriangle board, said regardless of which leg of the train line is built first, local transit agencies will need to make sure the bus routes are there to support it.

“We can build the best rail system in the world,” Branch said, “but if there’s no connectivity to it, it doesn’t matter.”