North Carolina transportation officials on Tuesday announced an agreement that will free up $461 million in federal money to begin modernizing the state’s rail system.
“Some of these tracks haven’t seen improvement in decades,” said Greer Beaty, communications director for the N.C. Department of Transportation. “This is a large amount of funding.”
The money, part of the federal stimulus package, will pay for 24 projects in 11 counties, including Guilford, Alamance and Davidson counties.
The work will include completing double tracks between Greensboro and Charlotte, building a dozen new bridges to eliminate 30 highway crossings and adding a fourth passenger train that will run daily between Raleigh and Charlotte.
The improvements will reduce the travel time between Raleigh and Charlotte to less than three hours while maintaining seven stops along the way.
Expenditures in Guilford will total nearly $14 million.
The outlay marks the most extensive infusion of cash in the state’s rail system .
“No one has ever made an investment of this magnitude. Period,” said Pat Simmons, DOT’s director of rail divisions.
The projects will take three to five years to complete and will create or maintain more than 4,000 jobs, state officials said. Top rail speeds will increase from 79 mph to 90 mph by 2015.
State officials needed to work out an agreement between Norfolk Southern Railway and Amtrak to qualify for the federal money. The state-owned North Carolina Railroad currently leases track to Norfolk Southern for freight trains, and Amtrak operates passenger rail service on the state’s behalf.
DOT will work with Norfolk Southern to design and build the projects and improve travel times, while covering the costs of maintenance incurred during construction.
Currently, passenger trains and freight trains share part of the route between Charlotte and Raleigh. That often means Amtrak trains must stop and allow Norfolk Southern trains to pass.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood hailed the agreement, saying it “will reduce travel times and increase reliability for rail passengers, create jobs and spur economic growth.”
The money for projects comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In all, the Obama administration set aside $545 million for the state under the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail program.
Last year, the state spent $59 million in stimulus money to start a third daily round-trip passenger train between Raleigh and Charlotte and to upgrade stations in Cary, Burlington, High Point and Kannapolis.
State officials said the fourth train will be added in 2015.
The improvements come at a time when higher gas prices and improved service are spurring more people to ride the rails.
“We have seen ridership go through the roof,” Beaty said.
Yet, critics aren’t convinced that trains are the way to go.
They say the money would be better spent by upgrading highways or returning it to taxpayers.
“Every dollar of federal money that we get is either taxed out of North Carolinians’ pockets or borrowed from future taxpayers,” said Joe Coletti, director of health and fiscal policy studies at the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh. “High-speed rail is not high speed and is a waste of money. ... Working on the roads between Raleigh and Charlotte would help more people than helping railroads, which are already heavily subsidized.”
In a related development, two Republican leaders in the General Assembly filed a bill Monday that would prevent the N.C. DOT from seeking, accepting or spending any federal funds for high-speed rail without legislative approval.
Contact Donald W. Patterson at 373-7027