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Two years after failed light rail project, GoTriangle plans for new Triangle commuter railway

<p>The proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail would have stops near Duke University Medical Center and on Ninth Street.</p>

The proposed Durham-Orange Light Rail would have stops near Duke University Medical Center and on Ninth Street.

Your next trip to Raleigh-Durham International Airport might be much faster, thanks to a new commuter rail project being discussed by GoTriangle.

Since the Durham-Orange Light Rail Transit Project fell through in 2019, regional leaders have turned to the idea of a larger commuter railway connecting Durham and Raleigh.  The proposed route is 37 miles long and includes stations at North Carolina State University and the airport, as well as one about a mile from Duke.

In recent years, “the big topic was light rail,” said Charles Lattuca, president and CEO of GoTriangle, adding that the commuter rail “kind of took the backburner to the light rail project.” 

However, after the cancellation of the light rail project, the commuter rail “came back into focus in a big way,” he said. “Commuter rail’s been on the mind of this region for quite a long time.”

A sales tax hike approved by Durham County in 2011 accounted for funding for such a project, according to Lattuca. “When Wake County also passed their sales tax increase to support transit, commuter rail was also part of that ballot initiative,” Lattuca said.

Lattuca said that a commuter alternative would offer different benefits from a light rail and serve the entire region more effectively over the long term. 

“I think people have seen, I think quite rightly, that the region needs to be connected through some type of transit backbone, something other than highway,” Lattuca said.

He noted that the Triangle’s highways have become increasingly congested in recent years and a commuter rail could be the solution.  

“When they add a lane on the highway, they find out that it gets filled up really quick,” Lattuca said. “Folks are looking for something that’s a little more scalable.”

Lattuca added that a commuter rail could transport up to 10,000 riders per day, which he compared to adding a lane to a highway. Unlike a highway, which can quickly become congested again, a railway can be easily expanded by adding more cars to a train or adding another train, he explained.

GoTriangle is currently in the pre-development study stage of the project, which includes studying the existing 43-mile rail corridor, gathering information on ridership, project costs and engineering challenges and conducting public outreach and public education, Lattuca said. They launched their website in late April, the same week Apple announced that they would be opening a new campus in Raleigh, which Lattuca described as “fortunate timing.”   

Lattuca emphasized the roles of Duke and NCSU in the project, two major universities whose students, faculty and staff would constitute many of the rail’s users. Stelfanie Williams, Duke’s vice president for Durham and community affairs, is on GoTriangle’s board.

“We’ve been doing a lot of public outreach, we’ve been doing some surveys and we plan to speak directly to Duke leadership in the near future,” Latucca said. “We are talking to all the major stakeholders and institutional stakeholders like Duke and NCSU.”

Latucca added that the commuter rail project likely will not meet the same obstacles that were encountered by proponents of the light rail, which failed in part due to objections from Duke over the proposed route through the University Medical Center.

“We’re not going through anyone’s property with it,” Lattuca said. Rather, the commuter rail would utilize the existing rail corridor which “already serves the region for freight and Amtrak.”

The pre-development study is expected to conclude by the end of this year, but Lattuca acknowledged that it still has a long way to go.

“I think there’s a lot of excitement here for the potential that commuter rail can bring,” he said.

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