Wake County transit FAQ

Hard questions about regional transit for Wake County will be useful, if asked with open minds.

September 8, 2012 

Conservative critics with whom the Republican majority on the Wake County Board of Commissioners are sympatico have raised many questions about proposed regional transit improvements, especially those that involve rail.

In a nutshell, the questions boil down to this: Who will ride? Who will pay? Will the taxpayers be stuck with costly facilities that benefit only a relative few?

Not posed by these critics, but valid questions all the same, are ones of this sort: Can Wake County and the Triangle afford not to invest more in public transportation as roadways become only more congested? How much additional tax revenue could be expected from development along new transit routes?

The commissioners – under pressure to let voters weigh in on funding for a regional transit plan – are moving to get some answers. Chairman Paul Coble and vice chairman Phil Matthews want the Triangle Transit agency to respond to 28 questions intended to zero in on the plan’s costs and technical details. Their skepticism has been fueled by analysis from the conservative-libertarian John Locke Foundation, which views the transit plan as a non-starter.

At the same time, in what could be a commendable gesture toward balance, Coble and Matthews also have asked Triangle Transit chief David King to respond to questions posed by a pro-transit business group, the Regional Transportation Alliance.

This is King’s chance to make a definitive case as to the plan’s benefits for Wake County. Durham and Orange counties already are poised to move ahead, but without Wake’s participation the plan cannot jell. A regional transit plan that doesn’t embrace the region’s most populous county makes no sense.

Transit advocates want the commissioners to agree to let voters decide on a half-cent sales tax increase that would pay for better bus service along with commuter rail and, eventually, a light rail system. Coble and his GOP colleagues have resisted, not wanting to raise taxes and doubting whether the transit upgrade would be worth the money in a region where development patterns have been characterized by sprawl.

There are political, practical and philosophical grounds for their skepticism. Nobody likes higher taxes. Getting rail transit to succeed in the spread-out Triangle could be a challenge. The bulk of travel in the region is destined to be via car, no matter how many buses or trains are available. Roads still will be crowded.

Yet as regional growth continues, it makes common sense to augment people’s travel options. What’s more, transit in other cities has proven its ability to shape growth in a way that encourages more efficient land use, and that stimulates business growth of the desirable kind – offices, retail, high tech.

If the commissioners are using the questionnaires to try to justify their reluctance to support transit upgrades, then they’re calling for a lot of wasted effort. But if they’re prepared to consider the answers with open minds, this will be a valuable exercise that could finally couple political decisions to a credible assessment of Wake’s transportation future.

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