David Cooke, the Wake County manager, may have reshaped the Triangle's debate over transit Monday when he deftly separated a few billion dollars of buses and trains into two sensible packages:
What we can confidently pay for, and what we can only hope for.
Cooke told Wake County commissioners that Wake can afford a substantial "core transit" package of beefed-up bus service and new rush-hour commuter trains. A proposed half-cent sales tax would cover more than half the cost, and no new state or federal money would be needed.
But Cooke said it's not realistic to count on heavy state and federal help that would be essential for a proposed $1.1 billion light-rail line from Cary through downtown Raleigh to northeast Raleigh.
So he shoved light rail into a new category: "enhanced transit." Wake would continue planning for light rail in the future, but it would not promise voters that they could expect to get light rail as part of the package to be paid for with the proposed sales tax.
"It has to be financially real," Cooke said of a 200-page transit plan he rolled out for the county commissioners. "It has to be something we are confident can be delivered."
Cooke and David King, general manager of Triangle Transit, said they weren't giving up on light rail.
But they acknowledged political and economic realities that have been cited by transit skeptics on the Republican-majority board of commissioners: Wake would face overwhelming competition from larger urban transit agencies across the country for federal rail funding that's been sharply reduced by Congress.
"This is much more reasonable, saying this is what we can afford," Commissioner Tony Gurley, a Republican, said after the meeting.
Transit advocates said they would be satisfied to start with buses and commuter trains, deferring hopes for light rail until sometime in the future, when economic and political prospects improve.
"That would be phase two," said former Raleigh Mayor Smedes York. "I think it's good to get the core and then to get the enhanced. Right now we don't have either."
Erv Portman, a Democrat Wake commissioner, endorsed Cooke's pragmatic approach.
"We need to take one step at a time," Portman said. "If we kept it all locked together in one piece, it might complicate it so much that we'd never get started."
Durham County voters agreed last week to levy a half-cent sales tax for transit, but their commissioners won't start collecting the tax until they see whether Wake and Orange intend to follow suit in November 2012.
The three counties together would collect an estimated $77 million a year - and that's just in the first year -- for buses and trains.
King assured Paul Coble, the Wake commissioners' Republican chairman, that Wake could count on state and federal funding that has reliably covered most of the cost of new buses for several decades.
Gurley said he wanted to check the numbers after King and Cooke said Wake would not need federal and state help for its half of a $650 million commuter-rail line to Durham.
Wake's transit plan calls for bus service to be nearly doubled in the first five years, and for commuter trains to start rolling within eight years. Triangle planners are counting on only modest economic growth over the first 25 years covered in the transit plan, Cooke said. If revenues are lower or costs are higher than expected, he said, it would delay the bus and train timetables by a year or two.
Cooke and King will spend the next three months selling the transit plan to Wake County's 12 town and city councils. Cooke will ask each local board to approve the transit plan, and to endorse the proposed sales tax as a way to pay for it.
Then he'll ask Wake commissioners in March or April to approve the plan and schedule a November 2012 referendum on the sales tax.