Jul 26, 2023 - News

Feds don't want to help fund the Triangle's long-planned commuter rail plan

A map of GoTriangle's proposed commuter rail corridor. Photo: GoTriangle

The dreams of commuter rail connecting the Triangle's cities appears to be dead for now, after a key federal agency said earlier this year it would not fund the project.

Why it matters: For years, Triangle leaders have focused on a 43-mile commuter rail as the way to connect the growing region, from Durham through Research Triangle Park to downtown Raleigh and out to Johnston County.

  • A lack of federal funding, however, means the region will likely need to find a new way to connect its cities and jobs hubs. That could be bus rapid transit.

Driving the news: Representatives from the Federal Transit Agency told a group of Triangle representatives this spring it would not help fund the rail project, Sig Hutchinson, the chair of GoTriangle, the regional transit agency that has worked for years on commuter rail, told Axios.

  • "It's a very big deal … and very much so a game changer," for the Triangle's transit planning, Hutchinson said of the FTA’s decision.
  • The News & Observer was first to report on the comments by the federal agency.

Instead, the FTA is now moving to prioritize funding for bus rapid transit systems — which Raleigh and Chapel Hill are already building — due to costs, their flexibility and the pandemic's effect on commuting patterns.

  • "We were told the FTA is no longer funding commuter rail," Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin told Axios, confirming the agency encouraged the region to focus on bus rapid transit.
  • "We need to pivot and that’s where our discussions and planning need to move forward with GoTriangle," she added.

Catch-up quick: Even before the FTA's comments, funding commuter rail was becoming difficult, Axios previously reported.

  • The potential costs of the project grew from $2 billion to $3.2 billion because of engineering difficulties and inflation. It would take more than a decade to build.
  • Both Wake and Durham counties don't currently generate enough in transit taxes to meet their share of the commuter rail cost.

The big picture: Hutchinson said the FTA's decision gives the Triangle the "green light" to begin designing what a regional bus rapid transit system could look like, potentially connecting the cities to Research Triangle Park and the airport.

  • Commuter rail was never meant to go to the airport, as no rail line comes close enough to it.

Yes, but: This doesn't mean expanding rail transit won't happen, Hutchinson said, but that priorities might shift toward supporting the S-Line project, which could bring commuter rail to towns like Sanford and Wake Forest and decrease travel time to Washington, D.C.


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