Road Worrier

Road Worrier: Orange, RTP transit decisions may help Wake focus

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comNovember 5, 2012 

  • Learn more online The Research Triangle Park’s new master plan will be unveiled online at at 11:30 a.m. Friday. Read about transit plans in Orange, Durham and Wake counties at The Wake County government website has an updated version of the Wake transit plan, along with detailed answers to a long list of questions posed this summer by the county commissioners, at

Wake County commuters, here are two things to ponder during the crush of rush hour this week.

On Tuesday, Orange County voters will decide whether to start taxing themselves to pay for big new bus and rail transit investments.

And on Friday, Research Triangle Park leaders will start rolling out a master plan intended, among other things, to free the pastoral park from its quaint, near-total dependence on the almighty automobile.

The master plan sets new priorities for 21st century growth in a sprawling, spread-out employment center designed – in the 1950s – for workers who drive alone each day to their labs and offices.

“One of the knocks on the park has been how dispersed it is, how transit-unfriendly it is,” says David King, general manager of Triangle Transit, the regional bus and planning agency.

Early previews indicate that RTP is ready to change. The master plan will focus a dense mix of pedestrian-friendly development around transit hubs planned for a combination of commuter trains from across the region, improved transit within the park, and a direct line to the airport.

Why does this matter at the eastern end of the Triangle? The RTP rethink and the Orange referendum might help Wake County focus its own thinking about taxes, public transportation and reliance on that almighty auto.

Durham County voters approved a half-cent sales tax for local and regional transit a year ago – but the county commissioners opted not to start collecting the tax, yet. They’ll be ready to go if the transit tax wins Tuesday in Orange, as polls predict it will.

After that happens, shoppers in Orange and Durham counties can expect to pay the new sales tax – a nickel on every $10 purchase – beginning as soon as April.

Both the Orange and Durham transit plans, patterned on a strategy that won solid voter endorsement in Charlotte, start by spending new tax money quickly to beef up local and regional bus service. Orange transit tax revenues also will help build a new Amtrak station – the Triangle’s fourth – in Hillsborough.

And Orange and Durham will start working together on a 17-mile light-rail line for trains that would run every 10 minutes during rush hour, and 20 minutes at other times, from UNC-Chapel Hill to Duke University and downtown Durham.

Wake County has been ambivalent about its own, equally ambitious transit plan.

It features an even greater expansion of bus service in the first few years after voters agree to pay for it – greater, because bus service is weaker now across Wake than in Orange and Durham counties. Wake has more catching up to do.

Wake’s plan also includes, some years in the future, a Cary-to-North Raleigh light-rail line that would depend on state and federal funding.

Polls have pegged Wake voter support as lukewarm, in the 51 percent range, on the transit tax. The county commissioners have not said when they will decide whether to let voters consider the half-cent sales tax.

A shared highlight of the Wake and Durham plans is a 37-mile track for weekday commuter trains that would run at rush hour and midday between Durham and Garner – with stops in RTP, Cary and Raleigh. Starting next summer, when the state Department of Transportation creates epic traffic jams around a three-year rebuild of Raleigh’s southern Beltline, those trains will seem awfully appealing to thousands of commuters.

Durham voters have agreed to start paying for those commuter trains. RTP leaders have included them in their new master plan. And the business and government tenants at RTP also have signaled their wish to help pay for Wake and Durham transit improvements, in a special property tax that would generate as much as $3 million a year.

Of course, Wake doesn’t have to go along.

Will Wake listen?

With a population approaching double the combined numbers of Durham and Orange, fast-growing Wake County is big enough that it can perhaps afford to go its own way – opting either to join the Triangle’s transit upgrade or to sit it out.

Harvey Schmitt, president of the pro-transit Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, speaks cautiously of his hope that Wake leaders will give a listen to the rest of the Triangle.

“As the region embraces transit, assuming a favorable vote in Chapel Hill, it expands the conversation into the eastern part of the Triangle, and that’s a good thing,” Schmitt said. “I think that, from a practical standpoint, Wake County is going to go through its process and make its decisions based on what we believe is in our collective best interest.”

Planners say that, if Wake voters approved a transit tax in fall 2013, those rush hour trains could start rolling through Durham, RTP and Raleigh by 2020 or so. That’s too late, alas, to offer relief from the upcoming awfulness on Raleigh’s southern Beltline.

But cheer up: DOT has big plans that will snarl other parts of the Beltline and Interstate 40 for years to come, and well into the next decade.

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