Wake County isn't crowded enough to support rail transit, experts say

bsiceloff@newsobserver.comNovember 12, 2013 

— A visiting panel of transportation experts urged Wake County leaders Tuesday to put aside the county’s long-range transit plan, focus on building better bus service and postpone talk of launching commuter trains and light rail service.

Wake won’t be ready for trains until it has heavier urban density, worse traffic jams and more people riding buses who could be expected to ride trains later, they said.

“You’re not large, yet,” said Sam R. Staley, a Florida State University economist associated with the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank. “The mobility needs of most people in Wake County and most people in this region are still being served quite well by the existing transportation system.”

Staley and two other panelists were recruited by County Manager David Cooke to advise county commissioners on a trains-and-buses plan that has not been aired in public since Cooke presented it to the commissioners two years ago. The three visitors spent Tuesday morning with commissioners and the afternoon with regional planners and transit advocates.

Cal Marsella, who ran the Denver regional transit agency for 14 years, said a proposed 37-mile commuter train line from Durham to Garner probably would cost more than expected and was not likely to attract enough riders.

“I look at ridership, at cost per rider,” Marsella told commissioners. “The numbers aren’t great. I’m not giving up on rail here, but I do think the cost is rather exorbitant.”

The panelists’ go-slow advice vindicated Republican skeptics on the commissioners board, who have balked at following Orange and Durham counties in approving new transit plans with a half-cent sales tax to help pay for the improvements.

“What I’m hearing them say is: What you did was wise,” Commissioner Paul Coble of Raleigh said later. “Don’t rush into it just because it’s the thing to do. Understand what you’re going to do and what it’s going to cost you.”

Commissioner Joe Bryan of Knightdale, the board chairman, said he probably will call for a fresh look at the Wake transit plan, to develop new proposals that could command broad support across the county.

That might mean hiring consultants to develop a new plan, Coble said – or perhaps, as one panelist suggested, two consultants to draft competing plans that would focus on buses or on trains.

‘Things we can do’

Commissioner Betty Lou Ward of Raleigh, a transit advocate who has chafed at the board’s refusal since 2011 to discuss the Wake plan, said later that the panelists’ caution on rail transit was sobering. But she said Wake leaders must push ahead now and develop a strong transit plan.

“I do realize that we are a small metro area,” Ward said. “We may not be ready for light rail – and if not, so be it. But let’s go on and talk about buses and the things we can do to bring multimodal transportation to Wake County.”

The panelists echoed recent criticism from business community members who want Wake to try bus rapid transit – a hybrid breed of transportation that is less expensive and more flexible than rail, but faster and more enjoyable than regular buses. Some U.S. cities have begun to invest in this service, sometimes giving buses their own right of way and amenities that include train-style boarding platforms.

“Bus rapid transit, where you have dedicated facilities, can actually move as many people as a light rail line,” Staley said. “If it’s designed properly and set in the right corridors and the right places and the right stops.”

‘Incremental’

The big word of the day was “incremental.” The three panelists said they had not shared notes in advance, but they all suggested that Wake build an improved transit system one step at a time.

“Do something now and more later,” said Steve E. Polzin of the University of South Florida.

They urged regional leaders to try things they have not considered before.

Wake County could invest now in the needed right of way to widen roads for bus-rapid transit lines, with the option to convert these lanes to light rail in future years. If the state Department of Transportation adds toll-express lanes to Interstate 40 – for drivers who would pay for a faster, less-congested drive – the same lanes also could provide faster trips for bus-rapid-transit riders, they said.

The panelists said Wake County was not likely to attract the federal funding it would need for a light rail line, and it doesn’t have a dense downtown employment center that would support rush-hour commuter trains.

“It’s a mass mode,” Polzin said. “And you need mass to make it work cost-effectively.”

Siceloff: 919-829-4527 or newsobserver.com/roadworrierblog Twitter: @Road_Worrier

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