I-Team: The Taxpayer Train

The ABC11 I-Team blows the whistle on a train with a multi-million dollar ticket you're picking up
November 7, 2013 3:14:11 PM PST
It looks like a regular Amtrak train on the tracks in the Triangle, but the Piedmont train between Raleigh and Charlotte is actually owned by the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

Crossing through the Triangle four times a day, we noticed it often looked empty, so the I-Team decided to hop aboard to see what it's costing taxpayers. On a mid-day train leaving Raleigh, we found row after row of empty seats. But, the people we did find said they love it.

"The train is stress free. The scenes are nice," explained passenger Dana Ali.

"I enjoy riding the train and I meet friendly people," said Rosetta Breeze.

But when we asked the NCDOT for the financial reports on the Piedmont, we made a startling discovery. During the past three years, the train has cost taxpayers $21.2 million.

Expenses are three times more than revenue, but NCDOT officials defend the spending.

"As DOT, this is a service we're providing to the public," explained Paul Worley with NCDOT. "They're state-supported trains for a reason: to provide an alternate form of transportation."

Here's a closer look at the numbers for the 2012 fiscal year - the most recent numbers available. The Piedmont train had $10.5 million in expenses. It only collected $3.1 million in passenger revenue.

That means taxpayers are picking up the rest of the tab: $7.4 million.

The state gets a federal grant of $2.7 million in taxpayer money. The $4.6 million balance is all on the shoulders of North Carolina taxpayers.

"It has been an investment by North Carolina DOT, as we try to provide a multi-modal transportation system," said Worley.

Worley said providing the train service is equivalent to adding lanes to a highway.

"We know that that gives more capacity as we continue to grow and people want to go between these two places," he said.

Worley  - who is director of the NC DOT rail division - says in the 2013 fiscal year, ridership increased by 4.7 percent on the Piedmont and revenue increased by 8.1 percent. He said trains are a better alternative to other transportation systems - like buses.

"We feel like the trains are going to be more efficient, have more opportunity to have more capacity on running trains over time, and, it's part of a long term system," he said.

The I-Team also took a close look at the fares on the Piedmont. Tickets cost as little as $28 one-way from Raleigh to Charlotte. By comparison, a fare from Washington to Philadelphia can be as high as $89. That's $60 more and that trip is 30 miles shorter.

Some of the passengers we spoke with said they'd be willing to pay more.

"I paid $27 today and I guess I'd be willing to pay about $40 for now," offered passenger Dana Ali.

"You could hike that up a little bit and it wouldn't be too bad," said passenger Carter Speers.

We asked Worley if the fares should be higher.

"We look at the fares about twice a year, and look at see how we can raise the fares," he said. "So we're constantly asking ourselves that question."

We also asked Worley if the train will ever break even or turn a profit.

"We feel like we want to try to get that to a point to as close to breaking even as possible," he said.

The NCDOT also says North Carolina is not alone. 18 other states also use taxpayer money to pay for trains.

The I-Team also discovered that your taxpayer dollars help pay for the "Carolinian" train service. It's owned by Amtrak and runs through North Carolina. That's costing you another $2 million a year.

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