Point of View

Triangle must choose a transit direction

October 14, 2013 

Nothing seems to capture transit planning in the Triangle Region better than Yogi Berra’s famous saying, “It’s like deja vu all over again.” We engage the public in a multi-year process, develop a plan and then declare that so much time has passed since the beginning of the process that it is necessary to begin again.

As Wake County commences another discussion on transit by inviting comment from outside experts, it is important to look back on the most recent planning effort. That process – like those before it – underscores the fact that any transit plan must resolve a few key policy choices confronting the region.

In 2007, the Wake County Commissioners along with their counterparts in the Triangle Region appointed a number of civic and business leaders to serve on the Special Transit Advisory Commission (STAC). They charged the STAC with recommending a plan for major transit investments for the region.

The commission studied the most heavily traveled corridors in the region as well as a variety of transportation modes, including bus, light rail, heavy rail, and bus rapid transit, among others. It ultimately made a series of recommendations by unanimous vote. Along the way, however, the process entailed several significant policy debates, particularly involving the I-40 corridor.

One key question was whether to split the region. Under that scenario, Durham and Orange County would proceed with a plan to link Chapel Hill to downtown Durham, while Wake County would develop its own system, connecting North Raleigh through downtown Raleigh to Cary. In other words, the near term transit system would not connect Raleigh to Durham through RTP. The commission rejected this concept, acknowledging the critical importance of linking these three major hubs to the region’s identity, economic fortunes and functionality.

Another major issue related to the preferable transit mode in the I-40 corridor. A number of commission members were predisposed to consider an alternative to rail given the loss of federal support for the previous rail-based transit plan. The commission carefully considered Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in this corridor. BRT offered promise, especially from Durham toward RTP. Unfortunately, BRT faced two main disadvantages to rail in this corridor. First, its placement within the I-40 right-of-way eliminated opportunities for transit-oriented development in many locations. Second, adding rapid transit buses would require expensive right-of-way acquisition from the PNC Arena to downtown Raleigh because I-40 veers south at that location, bypassing downtown.

On the other hand, the state-owned North Carolina Railroad (NCRR) line offered existing right of way into downtown Raleigh and a number of redevelopment opportunities in Garner, Cary, Morrisville, Raleigh, and other locations.

After lengthy debate, the commission resolved these key policy debates. It also recommended the rapid expansion of bus service in many corridors in the near term. In addition, it insisted the plan must not be dependent on federal funding, suggesting a local option sales tax as a revenue source.

The commission completed its work in 2008, and the area’s transportation planning organizations adopted the STAC’s recommendations in their respective long range plans the following year. Subsequently, the voters in Durham and Orange County overwhelmingly approved a local option sales tax to support implementation of these plans. Durham and Orange Counties have now proceeded toward implementation.

Although Wake County finalized its corresponding plan two years ago, the county has remained in a holding pattern. In September, the Wake County’s Board of Commissioners voted to suspend the Wake County transit plan and assemble an expert panel to examine the county’s transit needs.

As this process unfolds, it is critical that any plan address the key issues surrounding the I-40 corridor. Specifically, it must resolve the question whether transit should serve the western and eastern parts of the Triangle independently or whether an integrated system should unite the region. It must also resolve the question whether to use NCRR’s right of way or I-40’s right of way, which has significant land use and cost implications.

While outside experts can offer a fresh look and new thinking, any plan’s success depends on the support of the community. Unless it reflects the public’s values on key policy issues, a sales tax referendum to fund the plan will have little chance of success. Therefore, public engagement in this next transit discussion is critical.

If Wake County does move forward on a plan, at least we can finally embrace another saying by Yogi Berra: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

Mack Paul, a Raleigh attorney, served on the Special Transit Advisory Commission in 2007-08.

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