When regular service on the Amtrak Carolinian line began in 1990, then North Carolina Governor James G. Martin said, “This [train] is not just rooted in history. It’s the basis for the future.” Those words have proven true more and more over time: interest in passenger rail in North Carolina has only grown since Amtrak began operation on routes that traversed portions of the old Southern Crescent.
Because of the success of the Carolinian, North Carolina purchased a new trainset to be operated by Amtrak as the Piedmont, augmenting service along the North Carolina corridor of the Carolinian starting in 1995. More plans have been made for high speed rail to connect much of the state’s job centers as well, with progress ongoing.
Durham benefits from its position as a member of the Research Triangle within North Carolina and a transit-happy public. In 2011, a half-cent sales tax was instituted to begin funding for a multi-pronged transit improvement plan that included a 17.7 mile light rail line connecting Durham and Chapel Hill (with service planned to start in 2028) and a commuter rail system along existing tracks throughout the Research Triangle area.
Beyond this, the Piedmont Improvement Program continues to improve service in the Research Triangle area and elsewhere in the state. In 2010, a Regional Transit Development Plan was commissioned to identify areas of need for increased rail service and BRT service. Since then, progress has been made on its propositions, including 27 miles of parallel track on the Greensboro to Charlotte route.
LIGHT RAIL FUNDING
The biggest challenge any new transit system faces is finding funding, and the Durham-Orange County Light Rail service is no exception. Recent reports have suggested that the funding given by the State of North Carolina towards the project might fall about $63 million short. Although other parts of the patchwork of funding sources for the line could cover this gap, and mayor Steve Schewel has expressed confidence the project can continue on schedule, grant deadlines are coming by 2019, so the new money has to be found soon.