The Wake County Transit Plan proposes building commuter rail from Durham to Garner and light rail from Cary to Raleigh. The plan assumes cooperation from three private railroad companies, but so far none of the companies has given permission to use its tracks.
As county commissioners consider whether to put a “transit” tax — a half-cent sales tax increase — on this year’s ballot to pay for the estimated $4.6 billion rail project, the railroad companies that must provide access to their lines haven’t signed off on the proposal.
Proposing a tax increase without gaining approval from the railroad operators isn’t unusual, but getting the eventual go-ahead could raise the final cost of the project dramatically.
The commuter trains described in the plan would need to share tracks, or at least paths, with two private railroad companies — Norfolk Southern and CSX — and the North Carolina Railroad, a privately run, state-owned company.
Carolina Journal asked all three railroad companies if any planned to give Triangle Transit permission to use their lines.
While CSX has not responded to CJ’s queries, representatives from Triangle Transit and the other two railroad operators say no agreements have been made.
“Triangle Transit has met with the North Carolina Railroad Company, NCDOT Rail Division, Norfolk Southern, and CSX to share elements of the Wake and Durham transit plans,” said Brad Schulz, communications officer for Triangle Transit.
“No agreements are in place, which is normal for this early stage of project development,” Schulz said. “Coordination with all of these entities will continue, getting more active as these projects advance. Agreements will be necessary as these projects proceed into preliminary engineering, which would be spring 2013 at the earliest.”
In an email, Robin C. Chapman, director of public relations for Norfolk Southern, said Triangle Transit “has met with NS and NCRR and had preliminary discussions concerning the concept. There is much to be done, but all parties seem to be willing to proceed in a deliberative and cooperative manner.”
NCRR President Scott Saylor said while he wouldn’t be opposed to allowing commuter trains on his freight line — which runs from Hillsborough to Clayton — there are several expensive improvements that would need to be made.
“We have an agreement with Norfolk Southern that does provide a mechanism for allowing commuter operations on our line if certain conditions are met,” Saylor said.
Those conditions include additional tracks, safety features, and liability insurance.
“It would be too busy without additional tracks,” Saylor said. “Right now we have Amtrak operations on that railroad, but to run additional frequencies of commuter trains would require additional tracks and improvements — additional bridges, signals and stations.”
Saylor said there would have to be enough tracks so that the company’s freight business was not “impaired” and that could cost “hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Norfolk Southern and CSX probably will make demands similar to those of NCRR, said Randal O’Toole, a transportation scholar at the libertarian CATO Institute
“I’ve never heard a rail line say no to this kind of proposal, but they do demand lots of concessions,” O’Toole said.
O’Toole interpreted Norfolk Southern’s recent letter expressing concerns about Charlotte’s Red Line as a negotiating stance, not a flat out rejection.
In the letter, the railroad said plans for a “dual” commuter-freight rail line on Norfolk Southern tracks were “fundamentally incompatible” with the railroad company’s plans to expand freight service.
“Everything’s negotiable. If you give them enough money, they’ll be interested,” O’Toole said.
That’s what happened in Illinois, O’Toole said, when the state wanted to run high-speed trains on Union Pacific tracks between Chicago and St. Louis.
“They double tracked the entire line at taxpayer’s expense, which significantly expanded the capacity for freight and passenger. So Union Pacific benefited from a free increase in capacity and the cost was running eight passenger trains a day instead of five.”
“The Red Line proposal is to add some sidings, not to double track it,” O’Toole said. “You could interpret Norfolk Southern’s letter as saying ‘Well, if you double track it, which is going to cost $500 million more — if you spend a billion dollars instead of half-a-billion on this — then we’ll let you run your passenger trains.’”
O’Toole said it’s typical for transit agencies not to contact railroad companies about their plans to use their tracks until they get taxpayers to sign a blank check.
If negotiating with the railroads were done first, the true cost of the project would be out on the table and taxpayers probably would reject it, O’Toole said.
Instead, cities, counties, and transit agencies publicize an estimated cost for a rail system, get taxpayers to sign off on it at that cost, and then the negotiating begins.
“Inevitably the railroads say, ‘OK, we’ll let you do it, but it’s going to cost a lot more than you estimated when you told the taxpayers how much it’s going to cost,’” O’Toole said.
He said he’s seen it happen in many cities. In Denver, for example, “they assumed they were going to get to use Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail lines and they did, but they ended up having to double track one of them, so the cost tripled.”
Denver taxpayers had given permission to raise sales taxes and keep them high until the transit expansion was paid for, so they were locked in, he said.
In addition to the cost of extra tracks, taxpayers also might have to pay for expensive liability insurance, O’Toole said.
“CSX and Norfolk Southern both are very wary of letting passenger trains on their tracks because they know if there’s an accident and a lot of passengers are hurt or killed, they are going to be liable,” he said.
A commuter train recently hit a car on a CSX track. The survivors sued CSX rather than the operator of the train and “won big,” he said.
Wake County taxpayers should think about these things before they vote on a sales tax increase, he said.
“They get buy in, the costs goes up and then they say you’ve already spent a bunch of money, it’s just going to cost you a little more,” he said.
“It’s like advertising that a car costs $10,000, and then it turns out if you want a radio and heat and seats, it’s going to cost $15,000.”
Sara Burrows is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.