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Friday December 9th

N.C. Department of Transportation prioritizes new transportation projects, railroads

Prioritization of N.C. transportation projects for the new Strategic Transportation Investments law is well underway, according to state officials at the Joint Legislative Transportation Oversight Committee on Friday.

The state’s rail system is also undergoing improvements.

Prioritizing transportation projects

The Strategic Transportation Investments bill, which was passed by the N.C. General Assembly last session, will allow for prioritization of transportation projects by more data-driven methods.

Sen. Bill Rabon, R-Brunswick, said the purpose of the law was to “keep the politics out and let the data drive it.”

Don Voelker, N.C. Department of Transportation director of prioritization, said there are currently about 1,400 highway projects in the database.

“Those projects need to be scored, and that’s what we are doing as we speak,” he said.

Voelker said the prioritization for these projects is projected to be released this week.

But he said local planning organizations and division engineers are able to submit additional projects until Feb. 24.

Voelker said these officials and engineers are holding public meetings throughout the state to determine what the public thinks the state’s transportation needs are, in order to decide which projects to submit.

“We could see as many as 1,000 new highway projects, and perhaps as many as 500 (bike and pedestrian) projects,” he said. “So there could be an awful lot of work that’s going to be involved in looking at those new candidate projects.”

The state will prioritize the projects that are not already in the database in May, and then these projects can be scored by the local planning organizations and division engineers to get their input and finalize the prioritization, Voelker said.

All final project scores will become available in September, and then a schedule of construction projects for the next five to 10 years will be drafted, he said.

North Carolina railways

Paul Worley, NCDOT rail division director, said North Carolina received $546.5 million in federal recovery act funds, which will be used to make the state’s railways safer and more reliable.

Most of the funding will go to improving the the state-owned Piedmont train, which runs from Charlotte to Raleigh.

The Piedmont Improvement Program will add two more trains between Raleigh and Charlotte and construct parallel tracking to allow for freight and passenger trains to travel on separate tracks, Worley said.

Worley said the program will also improve safety, capacity and operations on the railroad.

“Safety is a big chunk of what we’re doing for these communities,” he said.

Worley said funding is also being put into the Raleigh Union station, which will help grow the Raleigh market.

Worley said the state’s railways are an important asset, because it would take approximately 5.2 million more additional trucks to handle the 93.5 million tons of freight moved in North Carolina by rail.

“One train can carry as much cargo as several hundred trucks,” he said. “That would be a lot of extra traffic on our roads.”

Worley said the NCDOT rail division will continue to look at ways to reduce costs, and a rail operations cost savings alternatives study will be completed this spring.

“We’re looking at how to get more revenue out of (our railways) and how to get more riders,” he said.

Some potential cost-saving or revenue-generating methods would be to increase ticket prices, cut back on staff or develop a Piedmont train Wi-Fi service.

Although raising ticket prices is an option, Worley said officials need to be cautious because the train is a public service.

“We want to maximize revenue, but we don’t want to hurt ridership,” he said. “So it’s a balance.”

In fiscal year 2013, the Piedmont train saw an average of 117 riders per train, while the other state-owned train, the Carolinian, saw an average of 434 riders per train.

“Our mind is open as to what can be done to bring the Piedmont up,” he said. “We want to try to see what we can do to get that up, and that’s all part of that study.”

Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg, said he thought more marketing of the trains would help.

“There’s a direct correlation between those marketing dollars and putting people in those seats,” he said. “I think you are leaving people in their cars instead of putting them on the train.”

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