Wake County commissioners haven't made the hard political decision on whether to let voters consider a sales tax increase in November to pay for new trains and more buses. But transit planners are in a hurry now to nail down details on a commuter rail line that would run rush-hour trains between Durham and Garner.
Triangle Transit, the three-county bus agency coordinating the region's rail efforts, wants to apply this summer for federal grants to help build the $655 million, 37-mile commuter train service.
The agency is pushing for a quick endorsement from CAMPO, a Wake-area transportation board, so it can meet an August deadline to seek federal transit funds that could flow our way by late 2013.
But the local elected leaders who make up CAMPO represent town boards that will spend the next few months pondering a comprehensive transit plan that also includes buses and light rail trains. They weren't ready last week to give early approval to the commuter trains.
Meanwhile, Raleigh planners worked separately Monday to find agreement on the strategic locations for the city's four commuter train stops.
It's a cinch that a West Raleigh station will go on Hillsborough Street just inside the Interstate 40 Beltline. It will have a big parking lot for commuters who can leave their cars and ride the train to downtown Raleigh, or to Research Triangle Park or Duke University.
A downtown Raleigh platform will be built on the tracks just south of the planned Union Station Amtrak depot at the west end of Martin Street. But there is uncertainty about whether a Hammond Road site, just north of Rush Street, is the best spot for a commuter train stop in southeast Raleigh.
And campus officials at N.C. State University, one of the region's prime transit destinations, are not ready to approve twin commuter platforms on the tracks just west of the Free Expression Tunnel. The university said Monday it is considering other places as well, including a spot just west of Dan Allen Drive.
"We want the flexibility, as a university, to play with the location of the station," Brian O'Sullivan, who oversees campus transportation planning and operations, told a citizen task force advising the Raleigh City Council on rail issues.
Durham voters have said yes to a half-cent sales tax increase for transit investments. But the county won't collect the tax until Wake and Orange counties decide whether to follow suit.
Along with beefed-up bus service right away and light-rail lines 15 or 20 years from now, the Durham and Wake transit taxes also would help pay for rush-hour trains that could roll by 2019.
They would serve mostly commuters and students, with 12 stations from West Durham through RTP to the east side of Garner.
Transit backers want the Republican-majority Wake commissioners to approve the bus, light-rail and commuter train plans - and to agree, in May, to let Wake voters decide on the half-cent sales tax in November.
Polls have shown general support for the transit tax. But it could be a tough sell in a chilly economy.
'Just as deserving'
Wake County Manager David Cooke assured commissioners last year they wouldn't need new federal transit grants to launch the commuter train service.
Damien Graham, the Triangle Transit communications director, said that's still true - but federal help would always be welcome. The quest for federal funds will be dropped if Wake commissioners reject the transit plan in May, he said.
"We would like to apply for it, but we know that we still will be able to build it even if we don't get it," Graham said. "Being good stewards of our local tax dollars, we think we are just as deserving as other communities that will be out there competing for the money."
A $1.1 billion light rail line from Cary to Triangle Towne Center is the most expensive part of Wake's transit hopes.