Wake County takes up transit issue

mquillin@newsobserver.comAugust 19, 2013 

After leaving the county’s transit plan proposal stalled for nearly two years, Wake County commissioners may finally take up the discussion at the urging of an unlikely advocate: Commissioner Paul Coble.

Near the end of Monday’s regular meeting, Coble read a two-page statement saying transportation is one of the biggest issues facing the county. He suggested hiring a panel of outside experts to look at the county’s mobility issues. The panel would also help the board of commissioners decide whether to revise the draft transit plan it has ignored since November 2011 or begin crafting a new one.

Everyone has an opinion about transit, Coble said.

“To date, I have only one opinion, and that is: An opinion isn’t a sound basis for a long-term solution,” he said. “What we need is facts that will allow us to address this critical issue and find a transit solution, or set of solutions, that works for the communities of Wake County.”

His presentation took some board members by surprise.

“Did you appoint yourself the chair of this?” board member Betty Lou Ward asked when Coble had finished. “Who have you consulted with on the board?”

Coble said he has been asking questions about transit since the Wake County Transit Plan was presented to county commissioners during a work session in November 2011. The plan calls for the expansion of local and commuter bus service and the construction of a commuter rail service from Garner to Durham, with park-and ride lots, sidewalks, bus shelters, benches, and other structures. It also includes a plan for light rail service from downtown Cary through downtown Raleigh and north to Millbrook Road.

The plan would use a half-cent sales tax – to be approved by voters – as well as an increase of $10 per car in registration fees to help pay for these amenities.

But the plan never has been put on the agenda for the board to discuss, and voters have not been asked to approve the sales tax increase to fund it.

Schools vs. transit

Democratic board members, including Ward, along with WakeUP Wake County, a nonpartisan citizens group focused on local growth and development issues, have repeatedly asked that the board take up the issue of transit.

Board Chairman Joe Bryan and other Republicans have said that schools are a higher priority, and Bryan has said voters would not approve both a sales tax increase for transit and hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds needed for school construction.

A school bond referendum has been scheduled for October.

Coble’s call for the hiring of outside transportation experts suggests he thinks there are serious flaws in the existing transit plan itself. Coble is an outspoken critic of light rail, which is included in the current plan.

After Monday’s meeting, Coble said it’s important for everyone, including him, to set aside their biases and hear the opinions of more objective experts who can help the county figure out what kind of transit it needs based on three parameters: What would work best here? How should it be financed? Who would run it?

Action at next meeting?

The board took no action on Coble’s suggestion Monday. At the commissioners’ next meeting on Sept. 3, Coble said he would ask members to move forward with asking three experts to assess the county’s transit needs. He said panelists might come from the Urban Land Institute, Reason Foundation, Urban Institute, Brookings Institute and/or university professors and transit consultants. A panel might be convened this fall, he said, and in December or January, the board could decide based on their input whether to revise the existing draft plan or begin working on a new one.

Karen Rindge, executive director of WakeUP Wake County, was glad to see transit on the commissioners’ radar but said the county should work with the plan it has. County staff developed that plan with local planning and transit groups, including Triangle Transit, which runs the regional bus and shuttle service, and with all 12 municipalities in the county.

‘Time to start … moving’

“I would say it’s absolutely time to start talking about and moving forward with transit,” Rindge said. “But we already have a plan that took a few years to develop. I’m sure it could be improved, but I wonder how long this new process will take.”

Also at Monday’s meeting, commissioners approved the acquisition of nearly 334 acres of the Walnut Hill Farm for the county’s open-space program.

The county will give the Triangle Land Conservancy $1.6 million toward the purchase of the farm, which sits on the Wake-Johnston line and has been in the same family for 225 years. The Williamson family donated a conservation easement on the land to the county, which guarantees it will not be developed except as a place for people to hike and enjoy nature.

TLC will own the land, which fits into a total of more than 1,600 acres near the Neuse River that the county and the conservation group have been working to protect as open space.

Earlier in the day, commissioners held a work session to begin the process of replacing retiring County Manager David Cooke, who will leave his post in late November. Cooke himself led the meeting, explaining to board members their options for conducting a nationwide search.

At its next regular meeting, the board will likely decide which forum to use to get input from the public on the qualities the new county manager should have.

Later, the board will advertise and take proposals from national search firms, one of which would be hired to winnow the list of applicants.

The board hopes to have a new manager in place by March.

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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