Comment

Run them and they will ride

May 20, 2012 

The old ad slogan said it all: “Take the bus, and leave the driving to us!” Now, if more people had followed that advice, the long-distance bus industry would be in better shape than it is today. But even for local commuters, the advice can make sense.

At least for those lucky folks for whom work and bus schedules align.

And who live not far from a bus stop. Ditto for their work location.

Giving people plenty of bus options typically means that a community sees a healthy bus system as a valuable amenity worth supporting to some degree with public funds.

Why reach that conclusion? Efficiency – fewer cars on the road. Environmental benefits. Avoiding the hassle and expense of driving and parking. Take the bus, leave the driving to someone else, sit there and mess with your smart phone, read the paper or just look out the window and think.

The Triangle counties of Wake, Durham and Orange have given bus service what could be called a mildly enthusiastic embrace. There are municipal bus systems in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and Cary. Triangle Transit operates connecting and cross-regional routes. Ridership is sensitive to fluctuating gasoline prices, but overall the trend is for more people to find a stop and climb aboard.

Yet transit planners know that as a fact of life, what it really takes to get more people to ride the bus is ... more buses.

People don’t want to wait around. They don’t want to have to go out of their way to get to a bus route. They want a wide choice of destinations, and they want service well into the evening and on weekends, so they can take the bus if they have to work late, or for shopping and entertainment. A bus can’t provide the flexibility of a car, but it offers advantages that can make for a reasonable trade-off.

These considerations arise as transit advocates in Wake County push for a significant bus service upgrade.

What first comes to mind for many of us around here when transit gets discussed is the checkered history of efforts to provide options involving rail. The latest set of those options are still in the table. But better bus service is the low-hanging fruit. It could be up and running more quickly and it would cost less then the commuter and light rail systems that also are envisioned as part of a regional public transit plan.

Whether Wake will raise the money to support a proposed doubling of bus service and to move ahead with rail would be a two-step decision. Ultimately it would rest with the voters. But first, the county commissioners would have to authorize a referendum on whether to add an extra half-cent on the dollar to the sales tax.

Passenger rail skeptics such as the commissioners chairman, Raleigh Republican Paul Coble, are in absolutely no hurry to let voters have a say on transit financing.

What the skeptics seem to overlook is that the plan’s initial emphasis falls heavily on bus service expansion. No leap of faith is required to see how extending bus routes to each Wake municipality, with links to employment centers, campuses and commercial areas – as well as ramping up service in Raleigh itself – would make it easier and cheaper for many people to get around.

A recent poll gave commissioners understandable pause. Just a shade more than half of those questioned said they’d be OK with the proposed sales tax increase to pay for transit improvements, while 43 percent said nope. A shade more than three-quarters said they never use the area’s available public transit, meaning buses.

But the tax question, as transit advocates point out, lacked details on the improvements being considered. It wasn’t mentioned that bus service would be a major focus. Some people might have figured this was all about rail. And if more convenient buses lowered the percentage of non-riders even to half, that would mean a heck of a lot of people using buses at least occasionally.

Transit backers such as Karen Rindge of the group WakeUP Wake County take heart in this poll result: Asked whether they thought they’d benefit in some way from better public transit in their community, even if they never used it themselves, 74.7 percent of those questioned said they would. Only 20.3 percent disagreed.

Durham County voters already have approved the sales tax increase, and sentiment in Orange looks favorable. Meanwhile, the Raleigh City Council backed the transit tax in a 7-1 vote. This is not a toxic issue.

It’s true, as Wake commissioner Joe Bryan says, that a failed referendum would be a real setback for the transit plan, which he says he supports. But if Bryan doesn’t think the public can be counted upon to say yes, here’s a suggestion: Get out front and help make the case. It starts with something as simple as showing how much easier it would be to take the bus.

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at steve.ford@newsobserver.com.

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