I attended two transit forums recently, one hosted by each side of the debate. I listened to all arguments for and against bigger investments in mass transportation. Ive followed the debate since 1996.
I urge Wake County commissioners to tweak the transit plan that has sat on their desks for two years. That plan proposes an incremental approach: more bus service, then commuter rail, then light rail. The commissioners should stretch the timetables and insert trigger-points to calm their nervousness about moving into rail investments. They can negotiate a better deal with the North Carolina Railroad to share the rail corridor that is owned by the people of North Carolina thereby lowering the project cost.
Their nervousness is understandable since we might have to pay for this system ourselves. We know the federal government is busy fixing websites and traffic problems in Atlanta, DC, Dallas, Phoenix and Houston. We should not count on federal funds for light-rail investments yet; our contributions to the federal gas tax are now being used to solve traffic problems elsewhere places that were poorly planned.
Our region has good roads and has been well-planned. Thats why we have fewer traffic nightmares here. The visionary thinkers at Triangle Transit, the City of Raleigh and the Towns of Cary and Morrisville want to stay ahead of the curve to avoid the traffic nightmares we know are coming with the anticipated and desired migration of people to our region.
We can stay ahead of the curve by providing a robust, multi-layered transportation system. A business-as-usual, roads-only approach isnt desirable because we need options, we need a new way of thinking because the next generation thinks and behaves differently.
Young professionals the millennial generation want mobility choices. They want to live in vibrant, mixed-use places and work nearby. Many of them choose their home first and then look for a job that is near home. Great places matter to them. They define quality of life differently from those who have been in the workforce awhile.
At the Nov. 12 board meeting, Commissioner Paul Coble got what he wanted by hiring his own experts. His out-of-town experts impressed me with their knowledge of transit operations, but they are not planners. Their answers on the land use and growth side of the equation showed a complete lack of insight into solving our transportation problem before it becomes a problem. One of them wasnt aware that Durham and Orange counties have already passed their transit tax referenda and are moving ahead to implement light rail connecting UNC with Duke. Carolina, Duke, N.C. Central all connected by rail. Imagine that the Brain Train!
Wake County should do bus and rail. Do bus where it makes sense and do rail in places where we want growth to occur. The real estate industry will love the opportunity to develop land near each rail station. Do express bus, bus rapid transit, bus on shoulders, call-in suburban service. Change the bus numbers to catchy titles like hop, skip and jump. Paint them bright colors. Give drivers colorful uniforms. Play music on board.
And do commuter rail, light rail or whatever is right in any given corridor. Just do something! The continuous studying is maddening. Some people have waited a very long time for an approved transit plan, and we just want to move forward.
Roger Henderson is a consulting engineer and certified planner. He has lived in the DC metro area, Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area.