Wake must advance transit to advance itself

November 14, 2013 

A community summit on Wake County’s transit future was held last week at the Marbles children’s museum in downtown Raleigh, but there was no child’s play involved. Economic leaders and authorities on transit, including keynote speaker Will Schroeer, development director for the Minneapolis and Saint Paul, Minn., Chambers of Commerce, got down to business.

And business is a big part part of what boosting transit – from adding express buses to adopting light rail to and commuter trains – is all about.

Bob Geolas, a native of the area who recently became president and chief executive officer of the Research Triangle Park Foundation, has traveled the world this year touting the park at the invitation of other countries. He believes RTP is an incredible asset, but he also believes better transit will be crucial to its attracting new industry and a variety of development.

Advocating for mass transit isn’t some warm and fuzzy liberal cause, as Wake Commissioner Paul Coble, long a naysayer on investment in transit such as light rail and commuter trains, and some of his Republican mates, are inclined to think. Orange and Durham counties have approved a half-cent transit sales tax, but Wake is the missing piece of the puzzle, and Coble led opposition to letting people vote on the tax.

That is a hindrance to coordinating regional transit, particularly with regard to commuter and light rail. Why opponents of more transit options take such glee in being obstructionist is a mystery, but it seems rooted in political ideology. And a follow-up of sorts to last week’s summit, a meeting in which opponents of big investment in transit options had their say, was decidedly unconvincing.

Critics merely rolled out the same tired reason for doing little: The region isn’t crowded enough to supply passengers for light rail and commuter trains. So, we should wait until the roads are a parking lot before anything’s done? Then establishing more transit options will be harder and much more expensive. That’s a strange posture for conservatives who talk about saving money.

And if they’re so certain of their wisdom, why don’t they want the people of Wake County to vote on a transit tax? The reason is simple: They’re afraid it might pass.

It may be true that this region currently lacks the density needed to support different kinds of mass transit, but that’s been an argument in other cities that went ahead anyway. Leaders in those places understood that creating transit options isn’t about dealing with current traffic but anticipating growth, and using transit to shape it and make it more orderly and sensible.

Schroeer, from Minneapolis-Saint Paul, told a story about the establishment of a light rail line there, one part of which was initially turned down by Saint Paul. But minds changed when the officials of that city saw how well the line worked that had been installed by Minneapolis.

And the modern transit system now seen as major asset in Portland, OR, hasn’t always been unanimously popular, but now almost all visitors talk about it when they go home.

What are Republican commissioners afraid of? This first transit summit got people from all walks of Wake County, including business people and civic leaders and conservationists, charged up about transit. The meeting was standing room only for a reason. People are ready to get transit rolling.

What’s needed is leadership with foresight, not hindsight. Some resolve and gumption would be nice, too.To argue against much more investment in transit is to demonstrate a reluctance to have faith in the future by investing in it.

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