RALEIGH — Wake County Commissioners sparred again Tuesday over why it has taken so long to make a move on transit planning, but they came together to vote for bringing in outside experts to get a fresh discussion started.
The board voted unanimously to assemble a panel of three or four experts to look at the county’s transportation issues and to help commissioners decide whether they should revise a draft plan that has been gathering dust since November 2011, or to craft a new one.
County Manager David Cooke said panelists likely would be paid a stipend and traveling expenses to come to Wake County. The board did not set a specific amount of money to be spent.
The expert panel was the suggestion of Commissioner Paul Coble, a Republican, who brought it up at the board’s last meeting in August, to the surprise of the board’s Democratic members.
Since the draft transit plan was presented to commissioners during a work session 22 months ago, Democrats have been frustrated by the Republican majority’s failure to discuss it during regular meetings. Commissioners Chairman Joe Bryan, a Republican, has repeatedly said the board’s first priority is education.
Commissioner Betty Lou Ward again expressed her frustration over the fact that Durham and Orange counties have been moving forward with transit projects based in part on the regional blueprint while Wake has done nothing. Commissioner James West said he feared that the move to discuss transit now might be just a political maneuver but that the group would have to trust one another and move forward in good faith.
Coble pointed out that the draft plan had many detractors, and that the county has grown and changed since it was put together. He said the costly infrastructure the plan would require might no longer be appropriate, especially by the time money is raised for it and the work is completed.
“I don’t think we should spend billions in taxpayer money on something if we don’t know how it’s going to work,” Coble said. “It never hurts to get advice from experts.”
The existing plan calls for expanding local and commuter bus service and the construction of a commuter rail line from Garner to Durham, with park-and-ride lots, sidewalks, bus shelters, benches and other amenities. It also includes a plan for light rail service from downtown Cary through downtown Raleigh and north to Millbrook Road.
Critics of the plan have said it needs to reach more beyond Raleigh. Some have said it should abandon light rail in favor of expanded bus service.
A half-dozen people spoke on the plan during the board’s public comment period, including Karen Ringe, executive director of WakeUP Wake County; former Raleigh City Council member Anne Franklin, and Carley Ruff, policy director for the N.C. Housing Coalition.
Those three asked the board to build on the draft plan, which cost the county millions of dollars. Ruff also asked that the board consider the needs of the county’s lowest-income residents and those with disabilities, who are high users of transit.
Frank Eagles, mayor of Rolesville, said the draft is “a poor plan,” which he said disregards the needs of his fast-growing town.
The next step will be for the county to select the panelists, who might be university professors, transit consultants or from the Urban Land Institute, Reason Foundation, Urban Institute or Brookings Institution.