Raleigh and Wake County leaders finally said what many transit advocates want to hear: they want rail.
Transportation consultants, municipal planners and elected leaders are in the process of crafting a countywide transit network they hope to partially fund with a half-cent sales tax increase that voters would need to approve through a referendum next fall.
Over the summer, Wake transit planners held meetings across the county in recent months to gather feedback on four concept plans. The concepts aim to answer two basic questions:
Should bus service be spread over the broadest coverage area possible, or concentrated on busy, high-frequency routes that would serve the most riders?
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Should trains be part of the transit system, or should it be built entirely with a combination of standard and rapid bus services?
Tuesday, Wake planners posed the same questions to the Raleigh City Council.
While council members offered varied opinions on the bus ridership-vs.-bus coverage area debate, their views on rail were clear.
“It has to be part of the mix,” Councilwoman Kay Crowder said.
The Wake Board of Commissioners reached the same conclusion about rail after hearing the same presentation from county staff on Monday.
“It’s the best way to connect to our neighbors, to make it a truly regional plan,” Commissioner John Burns said. “It also relieves congestion on our roads.”
Neither government body discussed specifics of a rail network, such as potential routes or a time frame for building it. Nor did they take any vote.
But their position signals that a rail system is likely to be part of a countywide transit network on which Wake residents will ultimately vote.
County commissioners will have the most say in a final plan crafted by partners Raleigh, Cary, GoTriangle, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Research Triangle Foundation, N.C. State University and Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
The group, working together as Wake Transit, is gathering feedback from the community and is expected to introduce a final proposal this fall.
“It was significant that they both, for the first time, publicly acknowledged (rail) as the goal,” said Karen Rindge, director of WakeUP Wake County, a nonprofit that advocates for transportation.
For years, rail advocates like WakeUP Wake County have called on county commissioners to pursue a regional rail system. However, Republican commissioners who controlled the board until 2014 were reluctant to do so because they said it would cost too much and benefit too few.
Democrats took control of the board last year after promising to focus on education and transportation issues.
If included, a rail system is expected to be the most expensive part any transit plan. But Raleigh council members offered several reasons why rail would be worth the investment, from reducing traffic on Interstate 40 to spurring economic development.
“Rail is paramount to having (the referendum) pass, it’s also paramount to our development not only here but in Garner and Cary and Morrisville,” Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said.
Council members and commissioners failed to reach a consensus on whether they should add bus stops in high-ridership areas or cover as much land as possible.
Mayor Nancy McFarlane said she supports a plan that covers a lot of the county. Raleigh’s more rural neighborhoods and suburbs are less likely to vote for a transit plan – with or without rail – if they don’t at least benefit from expanded bus service, she said.
Several councilors disagreed.
“Success is determined by people riding the bus,” Councilman John Odom said.
A final plan will likely try to strike a balance between the two, commissioners and council members said.
Not that kind of rail
The N.C. General Assembly on Monday rolled out a state budget that says legislators should not spend more than $500,000 on light-rail transit projects.
The provision hurts Durham and Orange counties, which plan to connect via a 17-mile rail line.
Raleigh and Wake County, meanwhile, are in the process of drafting a countywide plan that would likely include “rail rapid transit.” RRP, also known as a diesel multiple unit, features rail cars powered by diesel engines.
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