Raleigh mayor: Wake needs leadership on transit

mgarfield@newsobserver.comSeptember 10, 2012 

Nancy McFarlane

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— Without a change in leadership on the Wake County Board of Commissioners, Wake cities and towns will remain hamstrung in their efforts to offer more mass transit options, Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane said Monday.

McFarlane criticized the decision by Wake commissioners not to hold a transit tax referendum this year, saying a partisan stalemate prevents Raleigh and other municipalities from moving forward with essential services.

“Unless you can tell me (Chairman) Paul Coble is going to do something different, I think it’s going to take a new county commissioner,” McFarlane said, responding to a question about hopes for expanded transit.

The mayor made the comments during a 45-minute discussion with editors and reporters at The News & Observer. She touched on issues ranging from the future of the Dorothea Dix Hospital campus to the debate over the Wake schools reassignment plan.

Mass transit drew the strongest reaction from McFarlane, who said she tried to do her part by enlisting support from fellow Wake County mayors. McFarlane, an independent, defeated two Republicans in last year’s city election.

“(Transit) is the one thing that is so fundamental to what we become,” McFarlane said. “Unfortunately, it has become such a partisan issue.”

Coble could not be reached late Monday, but the former Raleigh mayor laid out his position in an August letter to Triangle Transit.

“We believe that a half-cent sales tax increase and associated fee increase during high unemployment and poor economic conditions must be approached with extreme caution,” Coble and vice-chairman Phil Matthews wrote.

Plans call for roughly doubling the existing bus service, launching rush-hour commuter trains, and eventually starting light rail service from Raleigh to Cary.

The county must take a regional approach, McFarlane said. “If we start breaking it up and planning separately, I think that’s a disaster.”

McFarlane’s thoughts on other issues:

• Downtown amphitheater: The city needs to find ways to book more events at the newly named Red Hat Amphitheater, McFarlane said.

The downtown venue, which can hold up to 6,000 people, was used only a handful of nights during the summer, prompting McFarlane to contact other mayors for advice on how to attract more programming.

The city has a contract with Live Nation, a national live entertainment company, to book ticketed shows at the 2-year-old site. But on nights when it would otherwise be empty, the venue could host outdoor movie nights or local musical acts, McFarlane said.

“We built that thing so it can be used all the time,” McFarlane said.

The City Council’s Budget & Economic Development Committee will take up the issue Tuesday during its regular meeting.

• Future of Dix campus: In a quest inherited from her predecessor, Charles Meeker, McFarlane has sought to reach a deal with the state to acquire the 306-acre Dorothea Dix Hospital campus.

An agreement requires support from outgoing Gov. Bev Perdue.

“We’re working really hard, waiting for our governor to make a decision,” McFarlane said.

Raleigh leaders have said they would pay a fair price to acquire the Dix property for a park, but the two sides have never agreed on what the land is worth. A recent appraisal pegged the value at between $60 million and $86 million.

McFarlane said she spoke about the future of Dix with Walter Dalton, the Democratic candidate for governor, and had a brief conversation on the topic with Republican nominee Pat McCrory.

But she holds out hope that a resolution can be reached with Perdue. “She says she wants to get it done. I am trying everything in my power.”

• Wake County school reassignment debate: In April, McFarlane said the new student assignment plan was causing both businesses and families to reconsider moving here.

The mayor affirmed her position Monday, saying that the absence of a clear answer about a child’s school assignment is a “deal breaker” for many families.

Echoing the Democratic-led school board, McFarlane said she favors coming up with an assignment plan that offers more certainty, such as an approach that goes back to tying each address to a specific school.

“I don’t think it’s practical to have a system where nobody can tell you where your kid is going to go to school,” she said.

Garfield: 919-836-4952

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