The last time Wake County Commissioners tried to push through a referendum on a half-cent increase to the sale tax rate to pay for mass transit, the effort fell short.
Voters never even got the chance to vote on the issue, in part because county leaders couldn’t get all their municipal counterparts to sign off on the plan.
This time, though, commissioners worked to create a mass transit plan that would offer something new for every town in the county, even if some of the services were still several years from becoming a reality.
In Garner, that meant adding back some plans for passenger rail service that had initially been left out of the plan because of cost.
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The plan now calls for two rail stops in Garner, one in Greenfield Park and the other in downtown.
The new sales pitch also includes talking about more than what’s in the plan for each part of the county.
That’s why Wake County Manager Jim Hartmann was at the CONNECT Conference in Garner on Thursday touting the ability of mass transit hubs to attract new business development.
Hartmann and GoTriangle’s General Manager Jeff Mann took the crowd of about 150 people through the area’s need for mass transit, showing a map of the current trouble spots on Triangle roads. The next map showed the projected trouble spots in 2040. The number of congested roadways grew exponentially from one map to the other.
“We have to ask ourselves if this is the approach we want to take because it will have an impact on other things that affect the quality of life in this area,” Hartmann said.
The men then took the audience on virtual tours of Orlando, Seattle and Alexandria, Virginia. offering them examples of how transit hubs – especially rail – have enticed businesses to open new locations in close proximity to those stops, hoping to cash in on the high traffic volumes that are attracted to mass transit stops.
“Development is following the trains. When you think about Garner and the trains that will be here, there’s an opportunity here. The time to start thinking about that is now,” Hartmann said.
Hartmann and Mann took a few questions from the audience and the first question struck at the heart of the issue.
“How are you going to pay for all this,” one man asked.
Hartmann said the sales tax referendum, if approved, would provide about $80 million per year. All of that money, Hartmann said, would be dedicated to transit and it would all pay for improvements in Wake County.
But he also said the project is entirely dependent on federal funding. The state is only being asked to pay 1 percent of the cost, which will run into the billions of dollars.
“We are also going to work with Amtrak and Norfolk Southern to make this practical,” Hartmann said. Mann pointed out that the passenger service won’t impact existing freight and rail services.
If the bond is approved and federal funding is secured, work on the rail system would begin within six to 10 years.
The first phase of the program will be to beef up the regional bus system. Wake County Commissioner Sig Hutchinson, who spoke later in the program, said the effort to grow the bus system will begin within 18 to 24 months after the sales tax increase is approved.
Hutchinson said, in addition to the rail stops proposed for Garner in the plan, the effort to beef up the bus system will also have positive results for Garner.
“We talked to every mayor in Wake County and we told them we want everything to be equal for everyone, but we all know some cities are more equal than others. Garner is one of those communities that is truly going to be more equal than others,”” Hutchinson said.
He left the crowd with a sobering thought.
“There are two basic points to remember: Ultimately, we have to get started. And there is no Plan B.”