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Light or commuter rail?

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Train of thought: Imagine life in the Triangle if we had frequent rail service.

Rail transit service in the Triangle is coming. No, not light-rail transit; that's still a decade away at least. Before light rail arrives, though, we are slated to have a new commuter rail service operating between Wake and Durham counties. Actually, if arriving on time is not a concern, we have commuter rail service in the form of thrice-daily Amtrak trips between Raleigh and Durham, each with a stop at Cary.

On Friday, when I gave our Amtrak service a test ride, I didn't need to be on time. That's a good thing, because I wasn't.

Nonetheless, one round trip proved the point: A commuter train has it all over driving I-40. And the price was right: $12, round trip.

My itinerary:

11:30 a.m.: My train is scheduled to leave Raleigh at 11:45, but it's the Friday before a Fourth of July weekend, so I'm expecting the train to be crowded and late arriving from Washington, D.C., en route to Charlotte. It is late, but just by a few minutes—enough time for a back story.

Two days earlier, state Department of Transportation planners walked a group of Raleigh officials through one of the old Dillon Supply buildings in the Warehouse District. DOT's brainstorm: This long, tall steel-and-brick building might make a fine new Amtrak station, replacing the nearby itty-bitty station that Amtrak outgrew years ago.

If the Dillon building is structurally sound, the DOT Rail Division's Allan Paul says, and if DOT can find the money to renovate it—and if the city approves—this new, larger Amtrak station could also be the hub for the new commuter rail service that Triangle Transit is planning.

The station would feature restaurants, shops—you know, like a real train station.

The building would not, however, be a station stop on a future light-rail line, nor would it have a future Southeast High Speed Rail platform. Both, for now, are penciled into different, albeit nearby locations that at some future date could wind up under a common, Grand Union Station roof with an interior people mover and ...

12:02 p.m.: No time for daydreaming. Amtrak personnel briskly board us, and we leave the station just 17 minutes late. "I'm going to Durham," I tell the conductor when he takes my ticket. "How many passengers a day go to Durham?" "Well, not too many," he says. "But we don't complain if they do."

12:12 p.m.: Cary Station. Since the train's not that crowded, I have a double seat to myself. I'm listening to music on my phone and life is good. Speeding through West Raleigh and Cary, I see one place after another where light-rail service operating in this same railroad corridor could be met by new transit-oriented (i.e., walk to the station) housing and mixed-use developments.

That's the long-range idea: Dense, infill development at light-rail stops offering an alternative to the sprawling, gasoline-guzzling suburbs.

The commuter rail plan would come sooner, but with far fewer station stops—mimicking this Amtrak train.

12:34 p.m.: The trip from Cary to Durham is an eye-opener. If the rail corridor between Raleigh and Cary offers lots of light-rail station opportunities (and it does), the corridor between Cary and Durham is a veritable cornucopia of old industrial properties that could be redeveloped. I see a junkyard, a flea market, a scrap-yard, and that doesn't even scratch the dirt. But while I'm totting up the profits, the train horns toot and we're in downtown Durham.

12:40 p.m.: Raleigh, eat your heart out. The new Durham station, subsidized by DOT, is in a redeveloped tobacco building now home to, among other things, a wine bar. I step out of the station onto West Main Street, where I'm greeted by a free bus, the Bull City Connector. No need for it today, though, because I'm walking a block to Toast, which turns out to be packed, and thence to the Beyú Caffé, a few doors down, which has some open tables.

At Beyú, I encounter Elena Everett, a social justice organizer whose latest project is the nonprofit Grilled Cheese Bus. She's meeting with two volunteers. They took the train from Cary. So I wasn't the only one.

1:30 p.m.: There's no train back from Durham until 2:33, so I'm hanging at Beyú when Jonathan Parker, a planner at Triangle Transit, comes in. He's going to Washington, D.C., on the Megabus. (The Durham bus station is across the street from the train station: Raleigh, take note.)

I tell him what I'm doing, and he tells me that the TTA is almost ready to report on its "Alternatives Analysis," a step in the process of applying for federal aid. The commuter rail element, he says, will probably cover a 37-mile route with 12 stations located between Duke University in West Durham and an eastern terminus near the Wake County-Johnston County line.

The exact locations are part of the analysis, but downtown Durham definitely will be one commuter rail stop, as will Cary and downtown Raleigh. There may be one or two additional stops at Morrisville and Research Triangle Park.

Altogether, Parker says, TTA may add 14 commuter rail trips a day in each direction, with heaviest service in the morning and evening rush hours. With Amtrak, that would be a total of 18 round trips daily. The added cost: more than $600 million.

2:30 p.m.: Bad news. My return trip will be an hour late. The train is held up between Charlotte and Burlington, a common fate for Amtrak service in a corridor where freight trains have priority. Part of the $600 million capital cost of commuter rail will be adding enough track between Durham and Wake that the new TTA commuter service would not be subject to these holdups.

3:46 p.m.: We pull out of Durham, gliding through the middle of a revitalized downtown anchored by the Durham Performing Arts Center. Durham County voters, thanks to the decision last week by the Durham Board of County Commissioners, will get a chance this November to levy a half-cent sales tax for transit. The tax would flow to the TTA for projects in or connected to Durham. A light-rail line to Orange County could be funded, as could commuter rail service to Raleigh and a future light-rail service.

As of last week, the Orange County Board of Commissioners is waiting for Durham's voters to approve the tax before it will authorize a referendum on the half-cent sales tax. Wake County commissioners are talking vaguely about posssibly allowing a vote on the tax in 2013, but they may not—the Republican majority is anything but pro-transit.

4:08 p.m.: Back in Raleigh. If the new Amtrak station were open in the Dillon building, you'd walk out to a plaza (under the DOT scheme) in front of the new Contemporary Art Museum on West Martin Street, which is fast becoming a new arts venue for Raleigh's revived downtown.

I've been reading a Stieg Larsson thriller. Listening to music. Even from the old Amtrak station, Raleigh looks pretty good. And the sun is shining.

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