If Ralph Tharp, Frankfort’s new industrial recruiter, had his wish, commuters in Louisville, Lexington and locally could be traveling to work next year in double-decker trains with leather seats and Wi-Fi access.
He is championing a rapid transit commuter rail system with 11 stations in Lexington, Louisville, Shelbyville, Midway and Frankfort.
Tharp, executive director of the Kentucky Capital Development Corporation, estimates the project could cost as little as $75 million and be completed by October 2012.
Tharp has been on the job since October and said the proposed rail system would help make Kentucky and Frankfort more attractive to employers and investors. The plan calls for two trains with four cars to travel from Louisville and Lexington three times a day, seven days a week.
It’s called “the Thoroughbred Rail Link,” and the trains would be named Secretariat and Northern Dancer.
The diesel-powered commuter trains would travel the existing rail lines from CSX and RJ Corman at speeds up to 80 or 90 miles per hour, Tharp said. The tracks can’t accommodate high-speed trains like those in Europe that reach up to 180 miles per hour, Tharp said.
He has experience with planning and designing rail systems in St. Louis, Las Vegas, Chicago and Baghdad, Iraq. Normally, a project would cost between $500 million to $1 billion, but much of the equipment and infrastructure is already in place, Tharp said.
It would cost about $35 million to buy the two trains and eight passenger cars and about $40 million to improve the existing railroads and build stations, Tharp said.
A commuter rail system in central Kentucky has long been a pipe dream for regional leaders but Tharp said he’s 98 percent confident his plans will come to fruition.
Using existing rails will not require any land purchases or environmental impact statements, he said. There won’t be any “not in my back yard” obstacles, Tharp said.
Other amenities would include a café onboard each train selling coffee and newspapers in the morning and cocktails in the evening.
“People could sit on the train, use their laptop, drink some coffee or read the paper all in the time they would normally be driving,” Tharp said.
Average travel time would be comparable to driving to Frankfort – about 30 minutes from Lexington and 50 minutes from Louisville, Tharp said.
There’s no hard figure on how much a one-way ticket would cost but Tharp offered a ballpark estimate of $5 to $6 from Lexington to Frankfort. Purchasing a monthly pass could cut that figure in half – less than the cost of commuting by car, Tharp said.
“We would work to keep it very reasonable,” he said.
A small station would be built in downtown Frankfort between the tunnel on High Street and the farmers market at Wilkinson Boulevard, Tharp said. It would include a ticket office, security area, waiting lobby and two restrooms.
Other proposed stops would include Keeneland and Rupp Arena in Lexington and the St. Matthews Mall in Louisville.
A train would leave Winchester at 7 a.m. every day and travel west while another train would depart Louisville International Airport and travel east. The same pattern would be repeated at noon and 6 p.m., Tharp predicted.
The schedule could be adjusted for weekends, he said.
Each train car could hold up to 150 passengers – 75 on each level. Total capacity could be increased from about 600 to 900 passengers by adding two more cars.
If demand increases beyond 900 on each train Tharp said additional trains could be added.
Tharp said he will begin holding public meetings to discuss the project in March. He hopes to apply for federal funding in nine months and to complete construction by October 2012.
It’s important to move quickly because there is only a two-year window of opportunity, Tharp said. President Barack Obama has offered up to $9 billion in federal funds for railroad projects and it’s unclear what will happen to that money after 2012, Tharp said.
“I’m calling it an opportunity surge and to get this done as quickly as possible,” he said.
Federal grants usually require a 20 percent match for state and local government but Tharp said he hopes Kentucky could receive credit for the existing rails and land. He said Kentucky could only be required to contribute $7.5 million.
Despite slow economic recovery and tight government budgets, Tharp said the project is a good investment.
“It’s probably the biggest bargain we will ever have in the commuter rail system anywhere in the world today,” he said.
A commuter rail system would also help reduce Kentucky’s carbon footprint and cut congestion on Interstate 64, Tharp said.
A study will also be completed to determine the exact location of stations and what improvements need to be made, Tharp said. The project got unanimous support from political and business leaders in Lexington, Louisville and Winchester, he said.
It would cost about $8 million to $9 million to operate the rail system and revenue would be generated through tickets, advertising and fees from vendors.