As Wake County ponders its public transit future, Garner waits in the wings to see what plans emerge and how they could facilitate the town’s future economic and residential growth.
Last Tuesday, a trio of outside experts advised a wait-and-see approach to county commissioners, contrasting with Orange and Durham County, where voters have already passed sales tax increases partly to support a commuter rail line. Panelists said the Triangle hasn’t yet reached a size or density where investment in commuter and light-rail would be prudent or necessary. Instead, they favored trying less-expensive and more flexible hybrid bus service to test the waters, perhaps one faster, nicer and more enjoyable than regular buses.
Garner officials, some of whom attended the presentation, express more enthusiasm for enhanced public transport linking Garner to downtown Raleigh and Research Triangle Park. Town leaders hope for eventual commuter train stations in downtown Garner and the Greenfield industrial area as called for in the regional transit plan. They say transportation alternatives could enhance residential, industrial and commercial growth in the town, given the increasing and youthful market for public commutes.
“I think we ought to start with buses and over a period move toward light rail,” said Garner mayor Ronnie Williams. “We need to crawl before we walk. The slower pace is fine with me and I think it will be a pretty good path to move on...(but) the more people that move here, it’s going to become more expensive the longer we wait.”
Accepting a smaller plan
Triangle Transit executive director David King, whose organization has a more aggressive stance on augmenting transit than the commissioners, wants to proceed wherever enough agreement can be found, including on expanded bus service.
The hope by proponents of rail is that future, high-density development around stops will augment current demand as the region grows, while detractors say current demand could fall well short, especially because of current distances between most housing and any proposed stop as well as lack of major traffic problems in the area. Proponents counter that by the time that demand is there, traffic will be a nightmare and right-of-way acquisition more costly.
King agreed with the panel’s cautions against over-ambition, and building under-utilized infrastructure. But he still believes they underrated some factors while seemingly validating Wake County’s reluctance to ramp up regional transit.
“One of the considerations that I don’t think got enough attention from the fly-in and fly-out experts is the length of time it takes to put these projects into place,” King said of planning and construction. “We’ll just have to continue to move forward in places where there’s agreement. We agree the region is undeserved by transit.”
King said Raleigh-Durham best compares to where Dallas-Fort Worth sat 30-40 years ago. (Dallas’ metro area was around 2 million in 1970; the Triangle is just short of that now, and both have two core cities as well as a number of comparable satellite municipalities.)
Dallas traffic currently makes Top 10 lists for worst in the country, and Dallas also has the longest (track length) and sixth most used light rail system in the country.
Closer to home, Charlotte’s rail line, which opened in 2007, has a ridership/track mileage ratio that compares favorably to most other light-rail systems.
King also said that while growth will take time to take hold and make traffic as bad as commissioners would require to act on rail, a sneak peak could be coming.
“(The roughly 18-month rebuilding of I-40) is a glimpse into our future,” King said.
Williams said he’s been working on pushing fellow Garnerite and county commissioner Phil Matthews toward support for commuter rail, but Matthews “won’t commit.”
Matthews represents Garner as well as largely-rural southern Wake County but must face election county-wide. He favors buses first to see what kind of demand exists, including possibly the idea of protected lanes giving buses ability to bypass traffic.
He doesn’t think ridership is nearly ready to commit to the heavy investment rail would require, even on a commuter rail relying largely on existing railroad right of way. Railroads also don’t like to share, he said. He also said basically no transit systems were self-sustaining and operate at losses, though highways are also tax-subsidized as well.
“You’re hoping people are going to ride it. That’s a big assumption to spend millions and millions of dollars on,” Matthews said. “Before you start spending millions and millions of dollars on these things, I like to trim the odds and see what you’ve got work with.”
He said he’s visited all kinds of mass-transit systems, but finds Wake County unique. He said the county has worked to not just develop a city core, but promote major economic development in a range of places like Garner, Cary, Apex and other areas so that everyone wasn’t trying to go to the same centralized city core. He said the completion of the southern leg of I-540 and development around the outer loop will ease pressure on the I-40 corridor.
He also cited places like White Oak Crossing, where the kind of high-proximity and walkable communities younger people seem to prefer have sprung up away from downtown Raleigh, albeit with limited public options for the commutes.
“We’ve kind of found our niche in our way of doing business,” Matthews said.