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Panel: Rail is still the ticket 

Nearly two years ago, when it dropped its bid for federal funding of a 28-mile, $810 million commuter-train line, the Triangle Transit Authority made it clear that the project had been sidetracked, not derailed. Increased global demand for concrete and steel had jacked up the cost, and changes in federal requirements made money harder to get.

In February, regional rail crept back onto the main line of public debate — bigger and pricier than ever. An advisory panel put together by planning organizations representing Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, among others, recommended a 56-mile system as part of a transportation package that would include a tripling of bus service and cost an estimated $2 billion, says George Cianciolo, a Duke University pathologist and co-chairman of the 29-member advisory panel. TTA operates 68 buses between Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.

A shortcoming of the old rail plan, according to the feds, was that the proposed line between Durham and Raleigh, with a stop in Research Triangle Park, wouldn’t serve enough riders. “There was nothing in between, so it wasn’t a high-ridership corridor,” Cianciolo says. Routes between Chapel Hill and Durham or Cary and north Raleigh might be better candidates for phase one. “I’m not predicting what’s going to get built first, but it’s probably safe to say it’s going to be a corridor that has high density and high-ridership numbers.”

Finding the money might be tough, though. One oft-mentioned source would be a local sales tax. That faces some high hurdles — approval by the General Assembly and three sets of county commissioners or, if stated in the bill, voters in three counties.

Joe Bryan, a Republican who chairs the Wake County Board of Commissioners, worries that the project might be too big, too costly and too dependent on local money. It’s not his top priority. “I love education more than I do transportation. I’m held responsible for education and not for transportation.” He’s impressed with the light-rail line recently built in Charlotte and noticed the public support given it by top business leaders. “If there is buy-in to this plan, there need to be champions that say, ‘We need this for our business to stay here and to grow here, and we are demanding and expecting that.’”

If community leaders decide that the region needs rail, Cianciolo says, it’s better to do it sooner rather than later. “It’s probably never going to get much cheaper to build something like this.”

State aid is no cure for drug maker

GlaxoSmithKline opted out of a 2005 state incentive agreement that would have paid it $1.4 million for creating 200 jobs at its plant in Zebulon and keeping them 10 years. Spokeswoman Stefanie Mendell says the British drug maker filled the jobs but can’t keep all of them. It plans to cut about 70 in Zebulon, where it will still employ about 1,000. GSK employs about 6,000 in the Triangle, and more cuts could follow. It has been hurt by competition from generic drugs, unexpected regulatory delays and declining sales of its diabetes treatment Avandia — which is packaged in Zebulon — after a study last spring linked it to an increased risk of heart attack.

RALEIGH - The State Bureau of Investigation and the state Department of Insurance are investigating the finances of The Castleton Group, which provided payroll, health-insurance and other human-resources services for more than 100 small and mid-size businesses. Castleton closed and filed for bankruptcy in late December. The company, which had about 30 employees, says its liabilities exceed its assets by $6.1 million.

RALEIGH — Research Triangle Institute, which does business as RTI International, has begun adding 600 jobs at its call center here. That will bring call-center employment to about 850. The nonprofit is collect¬ing information for a federal study of college financial aid.

CARY — Siemens Medical Solutions, part of German electronics maker Siemens, plans to add as many as 300 jobs here, for a total of 975, during the next five years. It makes medical gear and patient-monitoring systems here and could receive $6.1 million in state and local incentives.

GARNER — Golden State Foods, an Irvine, Calif.-based supplier of McDonald’s, plans to build a $23.5 million warehouse that could employ 225. It’s scheduled to open in 2009 and serve about 500 restaurants in the Carolinas and Virginia.

RALEIGH — Extron Electronics plans to build a research, development and distribution center here. The Anaheim, Calif.-based maker of video and audio equipment will employ about 125 when it opens next year but could expand to 350 within five years.

PITTSBORO — Biolex Therapeutics, which is developing treatments for hepatitis C, withdrew plans to go public because of unfavorable market conditions and because it had found financing elsewhere. Biolex never said how much money it planned to raise in the stock offering.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — London-based mobile-phone maker Sony Ericsson plans to add about 100 jobs by the end of the year at its campus here, for a total of about 850. Most of the hires will be software or radio-frequency engineers. The company is a joint venture of Japan-based Sony and Sweden-based Ericsson.

RALEIGH — Atlanta-based United Parcel Service planned to close its office here by the end of March, cutting about 60 administrative and management jobs. It will move about 100 jobs to other places in the region.

DURHAM — Cree, which makes light-emitting diodes and chips, bought LED Lighting Fixtures of Morrisville for up to $103.4 million, including post-deal incentives. LED Lighting develops light fixtures for homes and businesses, using Cree LEDs. Cree co-founder Neal Hunter was CEO of LED Lighting and is now president of Cree LED Lighting Solutions.

RALEIGH — Lewis R. Holding, 80, retired as CEO of First Citizens BancShares but will remain chairman. He was succeeded as CEO by nephew Frank Holding Jr., 46, who also is president. James Hyler, 60, resigned as vice chairman and chief operating officer. His successor had not been chosen.

SELMA — Columbia, S.C.-based East Coast Ethanol withdrew plans for a plant here because it couldn’t get enough natural gas to the site. It still plans to build one somewhere in North Carolina.

RALEIGH — Progress Energy requested federal approval for a second nuclear reactor at its Shearon Harris plant by 2020. No cost estimate was given, but other utilities have estimated that similar reactors would run $6 billion to $9 billion.

MORRISVILLE — Array BioPharma, a Boulder, Colo., company developing cancer treatments, plans to open an office here by midyear to oversee clinical testing. It won’t say how many it intends to hire.

DURHAM — New York-based drug maker Pfizer plans to acquire Sere- n¬ex, which is developing cancer treatments and other medications. Terms were not disclosed. The fate of Serenex’s 36 employees is unclear.

LOUISBURG — Louisburg College eliminated eight of its 46 faculty positions as part of a move to cut at least $1 million from its $15 million annual operating budget and make its accrediting body happy. It also plans to raise tuition 5% to $21,210 and cut student financial aid.

RALEIGH — Maxwell Marine, a New Zealand-based maker of boating accessories, moved its North American headquarters here from Santa Ana, Calif. The operation employs 11.