Passenger rail sets a record

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

North Carolina has witnessed record ridership on two state-funded rail lines, and the state DOT is looking to expand track capacity to add more service. Both lines are operated by Amtrak. But Georgia officials shouldn’t be swayed by the commuter rail trend, writes one local official; taxpayers can’t afford to subsidize a rail plan that’s “too big to fail.”

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Building a rail future in North Carolina

By Paul C. Worley

In North Carolina, the Department of Transportation is investing in better rail service for our citizens and for visitors to our state. We are making train travel safer, faster, and enabling people to connect more easily to more destinations along the state-owned North Carolina Railroad Company corridor between Raleigh and Charlotte, the largest area of population in our state.

We support and promote rail improvements because we believe that it makes sense for safety, economic development and job creation in our state. North Carolina’s passenger train services play a vital role in spurring job growth and connecting citizens and visitors to opportunities and important services.

The state-supported Piedmont trains from Raleigh to Charlotte and Carolinian trains from Charlotte to Washington, D.C., continue to be among the most rapidly growing in the Amtrak system, setting new ridership and revenue records in federal fiscal year 2013, according to a recent annual report released by Amtrak.

Ridership on the Piedmont service increased by 4.7 percent to 170,266 and revenue increased 8.1 percent to more than $3.3 million. Ridership on the Carolinian increased by 3.6 percent to 317,550, and revenue increased by 6.4 percent to more than $19.8 million during that same period. The figures represent the fourth consecutive year of growth for both routes.

At NCDOT, we believe that it is essential for individuals and businesses to have transportation options to get from one area of our state to another as well as to other areas in the country. We want rail to become one of the primary modes our people consider. We are working to get our customers where they need to be and want to be, and this enhances the lives of all North Carolinians.

Since all trains use all tracks, the improvements we making for passengers also benefit the freight services in our state. We are aware of the needs of our freight railroads that bring jobs and opportunity with every train and we want to enhance their opportunities to deliver goods and commodities.

Considering this, we are currently investing more than $520 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds into the Piedmont Improvement Program to build tracks and make crossings safer on the North Carolina Railroad between Raleigh and Charlotte.

When the improvements are finished in 2017, we will add two additional daily round trips to the Piedmont service. The increased capacity on the railroad will better connect the economic regions of Raleigh and Charlotte and the cities, towns and communities in between, and provide greater opportunities for job growth and economic development. In addition, the crossing safety improvements will result in improved safety and mobility for the communities along the rail line.

But our job is not complete. We continue to strive to find ways to improve the service. We are looking at both service efficiencies and enhancements for our customers, as well as better connections to the northeast and, yes, to Atlanta.

Paul C. Worley is rail division director of the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Taxpayers can’t afford commuter rail

By Steve Brown

The cardinal problem with rail transit is the influence of special interests, forcing logical deliberation to take a back seat.

The lust for rail projects is so strong that rational thought simply disappears. Certain development interests see new, heavily subsidized rail projects as an attractive feature to sell real estate projects. They do not care about the costs, because they are not responsible for paying the costs.

Peering through the hype surrounding the 2012 regional T-SPLOST referendum, it was easy to see that critical questions were being avoided. First, no one could give us a dollar figure on the maximum amount the region or state was willing to pay for rail transit per rider. Second, no one could tell us how we would pay the perpetual operation and maintenance costs of current and proposed rail transit.

We are being asked to spend billions of dollars on projects with the faint promise that the government will somehow figure out how to pay the billions in continued expenses. Does this sound like skillful planning to you?

I’m sad to say special interests and state Republican leaders’ ultimate goal is to plonk us into an eventual, permanent, annual, multi-billion-dollar regional sales tax to fund an expanded rail system that accounts for a small, single-digit percentage of the commuting population. Of course, cost per rider is irrelevant because we do not have a model that offers a red line, determining whether a rail project is worth building. Feelings are more important than figures.

Currently, Atlanta is suffering from under-utilization of its existing transit network due to low population density. Atlanta is one of the lowest-density metropolitan areas in the United States and not a suitable candidate for a successful commuter rail system. New York, Paris, Seoul and Moscow are excellent candidates.

Nearly all rail transit is heavily subsidized, so it only makes sense to choose projects that produce the greatest efficiency — something government cares little about.

Why would state government want to begin funding a rail system tantamount to a financial black hole? Likewise, why would taxpayers in Valdosta, Albany, Athens, Blue Ridge and Chickamauga want to pay Atlanta’s transportation costs, especially uneconomical alternatives?

In 2011, then-MARTA CEO Beverly Scott warned the transit system would have $2.9 billion in unfunded maintenance costs over the next decade. Why do my fellow Republican elected officials want to expand this type of financial liability with commuter rail?

Supposed successes like the Charlotte-Raleigh Piedmont service in North Carolina rely on federal assistance in the form of competitive, merit-based grants. But federal transportation funds are dwindling. North Carolina taxpayers will end up carrying the burden.

Keep in mind that every Georgia dollar spent on ineffective rail expansion is a dollar not producing in our local economy. We need to examine worthwhile forms of transit other than “too big to fail” rail projects.

Steve Brown is chairman of the Fayette County Board of Commissioners and a member of the Transportation Leadership Coalition.

4 comments Add your comment

[...] Worley’s letter was the subject of some discussion on an Atlanta Journal-Constitution blog. [...]

Gerald

November 6th, 2013
9:16 am

@SAWB:

You don’t see private companies building interstate highways or passenger or even freight airports either. You also don’t see private companies lining up to dredge the Savannah port do you? The selective conservative outrage against certain things (i.e. mass transit, alternative energy) but not others (i.e. highway bills, agriculture spending, lots of questionable military spending) has to end.

@Steve Brown:

Fine. You are against rail. What ideas do you have? I get it. Highways. Well, fine. Folks inside the perimeter don’t need or use highways. Build all the highways that you want but pay for it yourselves. Don’t redistribute our tax dollars to pay for highways that we will never ride on. And that includes the gas tax, by the way. The gas tax is a pot of money that the whole state contributes to. So hands off that. Raise your own sales and property taxes to build your own highways. No gas tax money and no Georgia DOT money for you. Sound fair?

Ken Hardy

November 6th, 2013
7:28 am

If the people of North Carolina want to fund a rail line between Charlotte and Raleigh and accept the deficit spending that is required, let them do so. Steve Brown has it right, heavy rail is never cost effective no matter how the promotors spin the numbers. bus service makes much more sense and is cost effective.

SAWB

November 4th, 2013
4:19 pm

It seems to me if passenger rail service were in such demand a private company would buy some cars, lease rail access and start operation. I think we all know why this doesn’t happen and that is because it’s not economically feasible. I do realize that some of the benefits such as economic growth, tourism, traffic reduction etc might justify some level of Government subsidy, but it would have to be very minimal with most funding coming from private industry.