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Will commuter rail come to Johnston County?

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SMITHFIELD — Commuter rail in Johnston County was the subject of this month’s Smart Growth Summit sponsored by the Greater Smithfield-Selma Area Chamber of Commerce.

The guest speaker was Scott Saylor, president of North Carolina Railroad Co. He was elected president in 200 and during his tenure, the company has grown from $300,000 in annual revenue to more than $19 million today.

The railroad’s 317-mile rail line, the chief artery through the state, extends from Charlotte to the Port Terminal at Morehead City.

“Transportation is the key to economic growth,” said Saylor. “The new generation would rather sit on a bus or train than drive. Public transportation provides people with more opportunities.”

Saylor acknowledged that commuter or light rail would not come to Johnston County overnight.

Saylor said the costs for commuter rail in Raleigh have been astronomical, roughly $28 million per mile. In contrast, with Johnston County’s existing rail, the cost would be about $1 million per mile.

“Johnston County has the lines and what they need,” said Saylor. “The roads are over capacity before the new highways are even developed.”

Saylor said the Triangle’s commuter rail system might be completed within the next 10 years.

“In Johnston County, looking at commuter rail, it’s designed to get people to and from work,” said Saylor. “Commuter rail is expensive, but you have the existing lines, which can be upgraded much more cheaply.”

The future of commuter rail in Johnston County, said Saylor, depends on the county and aggressive leadership.

County leaders expressed optimism about commuter rail, but said it’s still very early in the game.

“I think it was very informative and there was good attendance,” said County Manager Rick Hester. “I’m thankful that Johnston County has a seat at the table, but we need more information before making decisions. But I think even if it takes awhile, the seed planted now can be harvested down the line.”

“We still need data to help drive the decision. That is why we are getting the discussion started now and why the commissioners wrote a letter to the regional partners asking for a place at the table,” said Smithfield-Selma Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mike Mancuso. “One we have data on potential ridership and high level costs, the commissioners will be in a position to make good financial choices as well as help educate the public ahead of any vote on the subject. I see the chamber’s role as keeping the discussion going, drive a quick gathering of data then helping get the word out to the public so they can make a good decision.”

“I considered the meeting very informative, well-attended and thought-provoking,” said Johnston County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jeff Carver. “I appreciate and thank the chamber for coordinating the event and Scott Saylor and the NCRR for their willingness to discuss options. Certainly we would like a seat at the discussion table for further review, but at this point a little premature in discussions of funding options and ideas.”

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Johnston County Economic Development Director Chris Johnson. “Regional rail is all about building capacity. Collectively its going to require a county approach.”

Johnson said county commissioners have submitted a letter requesting Johnston’s inclusion in a regional project study.

“We have asked to be included in the rail study that Scott was mentioning,” he said. “We’ve asked to please include Johnston County at the table for the regional rail study.”