NC: On the right track: WNC route from Asheville to Raleigh gains steam

Feb. 21, 2024
The project would cost more than $600 million upfront to implement. It would use existing rail lines in many places, with construction needed for missing links along the 139 mile route from Asheville to Salisbury.

Feb. 17—The prospect of a high-speed passenger train connecting Asheville to Raleigh is one step closer to reality following a feasibility study released in December.

The Western North Carolina Passenger Rail Feasibility Study includes estimated operational costs, ridership and revenue for such a passenger train. To get to Raleigh, a new segment of passenger rail would only be needed from Asheville to Salisbury. Once in Salisbury, it would connect with an existing high-speed passenger rail service the rest of the way.

The project would cost more than $600 million upfront to implement. It would use existing rail lines in many places, with construction needed for missing links along the 139 mile route from Asheville to Salisbury. Given the enormity of the undertaking, it wouldn't be operational until 2035.

The rail service would open doors to connect the region with the rest of the state other than by car.

"It would not only benefit tourism, but business as well. We'll have more synergy with Raleigh and Asheville. We're almost cut off from the state legislative body and this will allow more people to go to Raleigh and come back to have their voices heard," said Anthony Sutton, a Waynesville town council member who serves as chair of the regional transportation advisory body.

The high-speed train service from Asheville to Salisbury is also a gateway to Washington, D.C., New York and other Amtrak destinations.

" Salisbury's one of the major thoroughfares," Sutton remarked. "It would just be a really great way for people who are not able to drive or don't want to drive to be able to get to where they want to go. How great would it be for grandparents to be able to go see their grandchildren or vice versa more easily?"

The train from Asheville to Raleigh would travel at nearly 80 miles per hour. It would take 3 hours and 48 minutes — plus minimum of 30 minutes to allow for transfer of trains at Salisbury stop, according to the feasibility study.

The potential fare would be $24, according to numbers used in the study. However, the feasibility study uses 2035 as a projected launch date for train service, and the costs reflect current 2023 pricing assumptions.

Cost projects in the feasibility study analyze whether ticket sales would be enough to cover the operational and overhead costs of the train line. The study estimates between 350,000 and 550,000 people a year would ride the train between Asheville and Salisbury.

The biggest obstacle in getting the Asheville passenger rail service back on the tracks has always been the cost. For the first time, there's a funding pipeline for the project thanks to the federal infrastructure bill passed in 2021.

Still, the price tag sits at whopping $665 million dollars, according to estimates in the feasibility study.

"We're gonna have to make some major upgrades to bridges and so forth along the route from Salisbury to Asheville," Sutton said.

A work in progress

The railroad opened doors for the tourism industry in WNC in the late 1800s. But passenger rail service to the region ended in 1975, when it was discontinued. And ever since, folks have been trying to get train service back.

"Passenger rail is an idea that has basically been on the table since it stopped operations," said Tristan Winkler, director of the Land-of-Sky Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The hurdle was money, which changed with the passage of the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2021 that increased rail funding.

The Federal Railroad Administration invested more than $1.4 billion from the infrastructure bill into 70 rail improvement projects in 35 states. The Asheville to Salisbury route was on the list.

"Getting into the Corridor ID Program is a big step, and it's an opportunity that hasn't been there previously," Winkler said.

The so-called "Corridor ID" program refers to preliminary development stage of new rail service — the feasibility and planning that's required before any track can be laid.

However, there are multiple steps even in those preliminary stages. The project has to secure funding through separate grant agreements at each step, according to Jason Myers, the rail program manager with the N.C. Department of Transportation.

"Someone is writing down what we do in detail, how we're going to do it, how we're going to manage it and understanding what it's going to cost," Myers explained. "That turns into a grant agreement that actually funds the real meat for service development plans, or helps it to."

Projects chosen under the infrastructure bill were assessed on numerous criteria, including transportation safety, connectivity, reduce shipping costs, increasing resilience to extreme weather, reducing emissions, and supporting workforce development.

Finding the money

Myers was among the speakers at a presentation in Asheville this week that dove into the feasibility study released in December — as well as the next steps.

The Corridor ID program funds 90% of the costs to develop a service development plan, but will require a 10% match of local or state funding for the plan, Myers said.

"We're going through early parts of the exercise now to understand what that number really is. What that 'X' is in the chart could make up that 10% match," Myers said.

Currently, there is no implementation funding — in other words funding to actually make the rail line happen.

"The funding we have is just for studying the project. But the idea is that now we're in the pipeline, and hopefully this project will rise towards the top and get implementation funds down the line when it's ready," Winkler said.

Even if the federal funding is secure, the other question is where the 10% match will come from.

"The federal funds don't pay for all of it. There's a required match. So we're going to have to work on getting that required match," Winkler said.

But there's time enough to figure that out.

"The main thing is we don't have implementation funds, so it's not about to happen. But we are getting the winds that we need to — to hopefully set that up to give us the best chance we can. And that's key. This is the furthest we've ever been before," he said.

There's plenty of other decision points along the way.

"The whole question about where's the right location for the service to stop in Asheville? That's certainly a part of that. And a part of that is also going to be involving the public in this process and making sure that we're setting up a service that meets the needs of a region or a local community where we're trying to serve," Myers said.

Why now?

Local interest in establishing the passenger rail service to western North Carolina has been in motion for more than 25 years by the Western North Carolina Rail Committee.

The committee advocating for the return of passenger trains to the region represents communities from Salisbury to Murphy.

"The Committee is encouraged by Amtrak's stated goal of launching passenger rail to Asheville by 2035 and is lining up federal and state leaders, most of whom are already on board, to make this a reality," said Ray Rapp, the rail committee co-chair who was a state legislator during the 2000s.

The recent feasibility study built on work that's been done over the past two decades.

"There was a lot of groundwork already in place that we could build upon — wonderful information that those people started. So it made this process a lot easier," Sutton said.

The estimates includes cost for platforms, canopies, and buildings at for seven intermediate stations along the route. The estimate does not include spur track segments from the main line to the stations.

Traditionally, N.C. DOT has partnered with communities to pursue grants to help with construction, but through agreements, towns and cities help fund ongoing operations and maintenance of station buildings.

Sutton hopes communities will step up to plate sooner rather than later to make the project a reality.

"We're trying to get all the local communities that will be impacted — and that includes Waynesville because Asheville is so close — to start coming up with groups to lobby for this to make sure we get the funding from the federal government," Sutton said.

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