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Factors May Clear Path For Railway

Unfortunately, there always seemed to be obstacles in the way: financing, questions about whether or not the public would use it and reluctant politicians. After last week, however, the likelihood of a regional rail system within the next decade has improved markedly.

First, there's financing. Last week, the N.C. General Assembly siphoned off $630 million from the 12-year-old Highway Trust Fund for new transportation projects.

The state has not been able to keep transportation projects up with the booming growth within the state -- especially in the Triangle. Updating our roadways and mass transit system is long overdue.

Now, the state Department of Transportation has some extra cash to spend. It has allocated $120 million to mass transit, of which $86 million will go toward building commuter rail lines by the Triangle Transit Authority and Charlotte Area Transit System.

Along with locally raised revenue, the TTA regional project still needs $100 million from the state. But this start-up money should help the state qualify for federal funds to begin construction by 2004.

But if they build it, will the people come?

Evidence seems to point toward rail travel's increasing popularity. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Amtrack ridership rose 15 percent.

Granted, people do not jump on a jet to get from Chapel Hill to RTP. But the South notoriously lacks mass transit enthusiasm, and the more rail travel becomes mainstream nationwide, the easier it will for regional rail to catch on.

And anyone who has stared at the pavement of Interstate 40 for 45 minutes while trying to get home from work would gladly jump on a high-speed train if it got him from Point A to Point B fast and conveniently.

The desire for a better transportation plan in the Triangle is there. It's up to politicians to oversee the plans and make sure that regional rail doesn't turn into an expensive regional flop.

As for the politicians, the political climate in the Triangle underwent a dramatic change after Nov. 6.

Charles Meeker ousted incumbent Paul Coble for the position of Raleigh mayor.

In stark contrast to Meeker, Coble was not known as a regional thinker, and he did not support the TTA plan for a high-speed regional rail system. In Durham, Bill Bell was narrowly elected mayor over incumbent Nick Tennyson. Like Meeker, Bell supports regional rail, as does Cary Mayor Glen Lang.

And of course, Kevin Foy was elected as mayor of Chapel Hill, replacing a pioneer of regional thinkers in the Triangle: Rosemary Waldorf.

Foy voices support for regional rail, but I think that he remains the largest obstacle for a high-speed rail system left in the Triangle.

In his platform, Foy did not even give lip service to a regional rail system, but instead focused on environmental protection and controlling growth.

On the surface of things, regional rail seems like a politically safe thing to say, "yeah, I'm in favor of it."

But the devil is in the details. Where will the rail lines breach our town limits? Will we try to keep it out of Chapel Hill proper, perhaps trying to run the line in a more rural area so as not to soil the beauty of the town? But if that is done, will people be willing to travel out there to hop on the train?

A lot more questions than answers, and these are questions Mayor-elect Foy needs to begin thinking about and addressing soon, especially because he campaigned as "the environmental, smart growth candidate."

In a town where road expansion is greeted with vociferous opposition, plunking down a high speed rail line will be a monumental (read: hellish) task.

But it must be done -- and will require dedicated leadership on behalf of all our our area's mayors.

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Columnist Jonathan Chaney can be reached at jhchaney@email.unc.edu.

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