Tax for transit will pay dividends

November 3, 2011 

— On Tuesday, Durham County voters will be the first in the Triangle to vote on a referendum to increase the local sales and use tax by one-half percent to support public transit. Voters in Orange and Wake counties are expected to follow suit next year. If these referendums pass they will help finance the expansion of public transit, including development of a passenger rail system linking Raleigh, Cary, Durham and Chapel Hill.

Do we need a passenger rail system in the Triangle? Careful study suggests the answer is, unequivocally, yes.

Triangle area population is expected to grow by close to 1 million people over the next 20 years. Yet Interstate 40, Capital Boulevard, U.S. 15-501 between Durham and Chapel Hill and many other main arteries are congested, and most of these roads have been widened to their limits. Adding lanes is simply not feasible.

A recent study of traffic congestion in the Triangle found that congestion in a single year resulted in over 18 million hours of travel delays and 11 million gallons of excess fuel consumption. The combined cost of those inefficiencies was estimated to be $346 million. Traffic congestion also adds greatly to the area's air pollution, which contributes to a variety of health problems and to the production of greenhouse gases that are changing the climate.

With the forecast for continued growth, it's clear that to maintain the current quality of life we enjoy in this area we need to find alternatives to driving alone. Why passenger rail rather than other forms of public transit?

First, it's not an either/or proposition. The current Joint Long-Range Transportation Plan developed by the Triangle's two Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) calls for a three-part public transit strategy: (1) an enhanced regional bus network to provide rush-hour service to outlying communities; (2) circulators to provide flexible travel options within major activity areas; and (3) modern, frequent, zero-emission light rail service linking Durham to Chapel Hill and North Raleigh to Downtown Raleigh and Cary, as well as fast, reliable commuter rail service linking Durham to RTP, Morrisville, Cary, Raleigh and Garner. The current sales tax referendum would provide funds to support all three strategies.

A passenger rail system, however, has several advantages over other forms of public transit. It runs on its own right-of-way. Traffic congestion does not affect it and it does not utilize existing road capacity as do bus-rapid transit or dedicated car pool lanes. A rail system has the potential to take a sizeable number of commuters off our congested roads.

Another benefit of a passenger rail system is that it will attract high-density, mixed-use development near stations, which will reduce sprawl and auto travel. In anticipation of a rail system, Triangle planners are rezoning areas around the anticipated stations to allow for higher density development, and developers are designing attractive new projects. To see how this works, drive along Charlotte's South Boulevard, which parallels the city's new light rail system. You will see attractive new residential, office and retail development - a great contribution to the city's tax base.

Finally, passenger rail reinforces the image of the Triangle as a progressive area in which to live and work. In attracting businesses and residents alike, the image of a metropolitan area matters, and passenger rail is a tangible indication of its commitment to maintaining environmental, social and economic health.

Is a passenger rail system economically feasible? It is true that it's difficult to justify a rail system given current population/work area densities. But the experience in rapidly growing areas like the Triangle suggests that if you build it they will come. Light rail ridership in both Charlotte and Norfolk, Va., for example, has far exceeded projections. Given that it will take about 10 years before the rail system to be operational, there is plenty of time for redevelopment to take place around the identified stations.

The Triangle is what it is today because forward-looking civic and public leaders decided to invest in projects like the Research Triangle Park and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. The next such investment needs to be in a state-of-the-art light rail system that will help protect the qualities of the Triangle that draw people here. Passage of the half-cent sales and use tax for transit in Durham County is an important first step in expanding attractive public transit options and maintaining a healthy and prosperous Triangle area.

William M. Rohe is the Cary C. Boshamer professor of city and regional planning, and director of the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is the author of "The Research Triangle: From Tobacco Road to Global Prominence."

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