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Johnston moving forward on commuter rail

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SMITHFIELD — The Durham-Orange Light Rail setback won’t affect Johnston County’s plans to start commuter rail service, said Triangle East Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mike Mancuso.

On Feb. 27, Duke University and the North Carolina Railroad Co. backed out on the light rail project and Durham town officials are considering eminent domain to move the project forward.

“Let me clarify and make things real clear,” said Mancuso. “What we’re working on for Johnston County is not light rail, that’s a much different system than what we want to do in Johnston County.”

Mancuso said Johnston County’s commuter rail would use diesel trains on existing tracks. The difference is cost — $1 million per mile for a Johnston County rail system versus $141 million per mile with an annual operating cost of $28.7 million for the proposed light rail system.

“You’re talking about a huge difference in cost,” said Mancuso. I’ve worked with the Go Triangle folks and am disappointed for them. It’s a huge piece of infrastructure,with a line between Durham and Chapel Hill, tying all universities together. I hope they can find middle ground.”

When commuter rail is done right, Mancuso said everyone benefits.

“Municipalities that have done this right have continued to spur economic growth and limit congestion and continue to improve the quality of life in those urban areas,” said Mancuso. Charlotte has a version of this. It’s fairly new, but everything I’ve read about it has been very positive. Then there’s MARTA in Atlanta. Can you imagine what the congestion would be if you took people off MARTA?”

Mancuso said a commuter run from Selma to Raleigh’s new Union Station would be 28 miles. The new terminal has multiple connections.

There could be several Johnston County connections, Mancuso said.

“I’d like to see one from Princeton to Raleigh with stops in Wilson’s Mills, Clayton and Cary,” said Mancuso. “There is some needed infrastructure; there would be freight on that line as well.”

While Johnston County commuter rail service won’t happen overnight, Mancuso said it could be up and running in less than five years.

“In April, we’re going to gather the county leadership to explore the possibilities,” said Mancuso. “We need to determine the public transit piece of connecting commuter rail to the communities. How do we get people from Four Oaks and Kenly to the train?”

The next phase of the Johnston County commuter rail line, Mancuso said, is to conduct a ridership study to determine viability.

“The other thing we need to factor in is the next generation,” said Mancuso. “Our generation has been wired to get in car and drive. The next generation would rather get on bus or train, and this is the workforce for which people are looking.”