Peter Rogoff: Mass transit still has a chance in Triangle

Obama official urges Triangle to try again

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comFebruary 1, 2012 

— The Triangle's second try at building a big transit system should benefit from an improved strategy here and a changed outlook in Washington, Peter M. Rogoff, the federal transit administrator, told local leaders Tuesday.

Six years after the Bush administration cut off funds for a three-county plan to lay tracks for self-propelled diesel rail cars, Triangle leaders are preparing to seek federal aid for a new plan with electric light-rail lines, more buses and rush-hour commuter trains.

After transportation planners and three Triangle mayors gave Rogoff a bus tour and an earful of their ambitions Tuesday, he gave them reason to hope for a better reception this time.

"The Bush administration was working under a set of very narrow rules that the Obama administration has gone about changing," Rogoff said in an interview. "We look not just at the travel time savings in relation to cost but all of the other benefits that transit expansion will bring to a community, like economic development and environmental benefits."

The first Triangle Transit plan was hurt by a weak commitment for local money to help pay for it. Rogoff noted that Durham County voters have approved a half-cent sales tax for transit investments and that county commissioners in Wake and Orange are considering whether to let voters vote on the same tax in November.

"Obviously, those decisions are going to be made by the local voters," Rogoff told an audience at N.C. State University. "But there really is no substitute for having designated resources, so when we pencil in a project ... we see (local) dollars that are a sure thing."

In his State of the Union speech last week, President Barack Obama asked Congress to beef up spending for transportation infrastructure by making use of some of the savings that will be realized as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars wind down. Republican leaders have not embraced that approach.

"Other people, whether it's the House or the Senate, are going to have other ideas," Rogoff said. "It's going to be a rich debate."

Tour through RTP

Before he spoke to about 100 people at NCSU, Rogoff was an audience of one for business and government transit boosters on a bus tour that tracked proposed rail routes from Durham to Raleigh.

He heard a frank assessment of a big challenge at the region's heart: the sprawling campuses of Research Triangle Park, designed for cars and resistant to mass transit.

"As you can see, we're spread out - eight miles long, two miles wide," Liz Rooks, executive vice president of the Research Triangle Foundation, told Rogoff. "We're big. We're lumbering. We're trying to change the direction of the battleship."

RTP plans include more dense development around the planned sites of two commuter rail stations. But buses will be more suited than trains when it comes to serving most of the area.

"You know there's nothing wrong with rubber tires," Rogoff told Rooks. "We're big rail advocates, but more than anything else, we're big transit advocates. And rail does not make sense in every application and for every budget."

Mixed attitude in Wake

The John Locke Foundation, a regular critic of transit spending, announced Tuesday that it will portray Wake County transit plans as "financially infeasible" in an upcoming report. Some members of the Wake Board of Commissioners have expressed reluctance to allow a transit sales tax referendum this year.

But Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane said the growing region will depend on a good transit system in the future.

"We're realizing that public transportation is going to be the key component in what we're going to become," McFarlane told the NCSU audience. Otherwise, "we cannot possibly have a doubling in our population in the next 25 or 30 years and maintain the quality of life and keep those things that are bringing people here."

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

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