Triangle's transit prospects in limbo

Wake and Orange ponder whether to follow Durham's lead

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comNovember 14, 2011 

  • Voters approved a half-cent sales tax that would give Durham County $18.4 million a year to invest in better bus service and to start building a light-rail line to Chapel Hill and a commuter rail line to Garner.

    The county commissioners say they won't collect the new transit sales tax until they know whether Orange and Wake counties plan to follow suit with a similar tax.

    Highlights of Durham's plan for transit improvements include:

    Expanded bus service, mostly in the first three years

    More service to universities, hospitals, other job centers and retail centers:

    New Sunday service and later Saturday service on Triangle Transit routes to Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and RDU Airport.

    New service from southwest Durham to Duke and VA Medical Centers.

    New express route from Rougemont & northern Durham County.

    More frequent service on existing routes.

    Improved sidewalks, shelters and transit signal priority on major routes.

    Improvements at 200 bus stops

    Four new neighborhood transit centers

    Rush-hour commuter trains

    From Durham to RTP, Morrisville, Cary, Raleigh and Garner (if Wake County voters also approve a transit sales tax), it would cover 37 miles, would run every 20 to 30 minutes during workday rush hour, have 12 stations and a total travel time of 51 minutes. Service would begin in 2018. The diesel-locomotive trains would run on existing Amtrak-freight railroad tracks.

    Light rail trains

    From Durham to UNC-Chapel Hill (if Orange County voters also approve transit sales tax), it would cover 17 miles, run every 10 minutes during workday rush hour and every 20 minutes other times, boast 17 stations and have a total travel time of 35 minutes. Service would begin in 2025. The electric-powered light-rail trains can operate on separate tracks or on tracks in the street.

    Source: ourtransitfuture.com

  • Transit planners in Wake County will update county commissioners at a 2 p.m. meeting today. Then they'll make the rounds of the county's 12 city and town boards.

    Wake's proposal is split into two packages:

    Core transit, $600 million capital cost

    Bus service nearly doubled in the first five years. More shelters and park-and-ride lots and new express service to outlying towns.

    Rush-hour commuter trains from Garner to Durham.

    Paid for mostly with existing revenue and a proposed half-cent sales tax worth $54 million a year.

    Enhanced transit, $1.1 billion capital cost

    Adds a light-rail line from Cary to Millbrook Road.

    Requires substantial state and federal funding that cannot be counted upon now.

    Source: ourtransitfuture.com

Durham County voters took a big first step for themselves and their neighbors last week when they approved a new local sales tax to make down payments on a 25-year, $3.5 billion three-county transportation network of buses and trains.

But Triangle transit prospects will stay in limbo for another year while Wake and Orange counties decide whether to schedule tax referendums next November.

Political and demographic alignments in the two counties, especially Wake, may not be as favorable for the transit tax as in Durham.

The evolving plans for Orange and Wake focus most of the trains and buses where the most people live, in the urban centers of Raleigh-Cary and Chapel Hill-Carrboro.

The transit tax could be a tougher sell in rural northern Orange and some of Wake's outlying towns.

And the Republican majority on Wake's board of commissioners has been cool to anything involving taxes and trains.

"We're in tough economic times," said Paul Coble, chairman of the Wake board, which will discuss transit plans at a work session today.

"We need to be careful not only how we spend money, but how we commit future revenues."

Durham voters did commit themselves Tuesday, by a 60 percent majority, to a new half-cent sales tax that will generate $18.4 million a year for transit improvements.

Durham County's first spending will focus on a fast expansion of local bus service. Next comes a 37-mile rush-hour commuter train from Durham through Research Triangle Park and Raleigh to Garner. Later, a 17-mile light-rail line from Durham to Chapel Hill.

Transit advocates in Wake drew encouragement from Durham's example.

"We all feel like this is within reach," said Karen Rindge, executive director of WakeUP Wake County, a group that lobbies for transit improvements and responsible growth.

Betty Lou Ward, a Wake commissioner and a Democrat, applauded the "perfectly wonderful" Durham vote.

"Learning from your neighbors is a good thing," Ward said. "I'm really proud of them for passing this."

But Durham officials won't collect the new tax or spend the money until the other two counties decide what to do. The half-cent tax would generate $5.1 million in Orange and $54 million in Wake each year.

"Our bus and rail investment plan is directly tied to our neighbors," said Ellen Reckhow, a Durham County commissioner and a Democrat.

"Until we know what they are doing, we don't really have a plan to implement, so we're going to wait.

"I certainly hope they proceed. We want to build a regional system. We stepped forward first to light a path and create some momentum for the region to move forward."

Coble said better bus service is a good idea, but rail transit is a poor fit for the Triangle.

"We've spent 50 years spreading ourselves out and trying to disperse traffic,"Coble said. "To try to use a rail system that focuses very narrowly is going to miss the vast amount of traffic in the Triangle."

Poll: Public in support

Polls in recent years show general support for transit plans in all three counties, with the numbers consistently strongest in Durham. A poll in March by a pro-transit business group found support for the transit sales tax at 60 percent in Durham County, 59 percent in Orange and 51 percent in Wake.

Coming in a major election year, Wake's transit debate will be inseparable from statewide politics. Coble is a candidate in the May GOP primary for the 13th District congressional seat, and fellow commissioner Tony Gurley is a GOP primary candidate for lieutenant governor.

Transit and taxes have been unpopular with Republicans at every level, but it's not clear how the issues will play out for a candidate expected to head the state GOP ticket in 2012.

Pat McCrory, the leading contender for his party's gubernatorial spot, blazed a trail for transit taxes when he served as mayor of Charlotte.

McCrory worked with Democrats to sell a half-cent transit sales tax to legislators in Raleigh and then to voters in Mecklenburg County in 1998. He presided over Charlotte's bus expansion and championed North Carolina's first light-rail line there as a magnet for economic development.

One Wake Republican, Commissioner Joe Bryan, is more enthusiastic than Coble about transit improvements and about Durham's vote.

"I commend the Durham citizenry on their vote to make an additional investment in transportation," Bryan said. "But I think the market is a little bit different in Wake County. There's not quite that level of support yet."

Bryan said he hopes eventually to see Wake develop a "comprehensive, robust transportation system." But he struggles to balance transit needs with more urgent problems and hasn't decided whether to push for a transit tax vote next November.

"My hesitancy is that where I see the needs of our county today is more toward the core types of things: education and human services," Bryan said. "That's where I feel a larger, more immediate responsibility."

Staff writer Matt Garfield contributed to this report.

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or twitter.com/Road_Worrier

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