Raleigh mayor makes right call for better public transit

March 25, 2014 

Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane delivered her annual State of the City address with an unusual twist. Instead of describing what is happening in Raleigh, she focused on what’s not: growth in public transit.

“In order for us to remain competitive, we must address the fact that we need a robust public transportation system,” the mayor said in her 15-minute speech at the Raleigh Rotary Club. “This is key for our economic development. Without it, we will be overcome with our success and choke ourselves off with congestion.”

McFarlane’s call for more public transit came after she listed Raleigh’s latest crop of “best of” and “top 10” awards. The city has been drawing national attention for its quality of life for more than a decade, but that progress will end unless the city and region evolve to include more and better ways to get around.

New businesses and their employees increasingly want transit options. They want commuter rail and light rail and expanded express bus services. They want to avoid high gas prices and parking charges while having time to work while in transit and getting the health benefits of walking more.

“Employers like Citrix and Red Hat tell me that their employees want to be able to experience the city and area without having to be in a car,” she said. “They want walkable, accessible communities that offer that lifestyle that allows for increased interactions and productivity without lost time driving a car.”

For these reasons and others, public transit is booming nationally. Last year, Americans riding rails and buses posted the highest annual public transit ridership in 57 years, the American Public Transportation Association reported earlier this month. Ridership was up on all forms of public transit. Subways and elevated trains were up 2.8 percent, commuter rail ridership rose 2.1 percent, light rail climbed 1.6 percent and bus ridership increased 3.8 percent in cities under 100,000 and was stable nationally.

“There is a fundamental shift going on in the way we move about our communities. People in record numbers are demanding more public transit services and communities are benefiting with strong economic growth,” said APTA President and CEO Michael Melaniphy.

In the Triangle, leaders in Orange and Durham counties have seen the trend and anticipated the demand. Those counties approved a half-cent sales tax to support development of public transit. Plans call for a light-rail line to run from Chapel Hill to East Durham, connecting the western Triangle’s major employers, UNC-CH and Duke University, as well as Durham’s VA Medical Center and N.C. Central University. Cost of the 17-mile line is projected to be $1.34 billion.

But Wake County is holding back the region’s transit development. Republicans who control Wake County’s Board of Commissioners have shelved transit studies for years and balked at putting a half-cent sales tax on the ballot so residents can vote to support public transit development.

Commissioners agreed during a recent retreat that public transit is a need that can no longer be put off. They may also be spurred by upcoming elections that will have the four seats now occupied by the Republican majority on the ballot.

It may also help that the new county manager, Jim Hartmann, has served around the nation and is familiar with the operation and the value of strong public transit systems. He might impress on the commissioners that what McFarlane sees in Raleigh is missing across the county. People need and increasingly want options for moving around the Triangle. If the Triangle wants to keep its Best Place to Live titles, it will need to add more ways to roll.

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