For the past three years, County Commissioner Paul Coble has set a slow pace for public discussion about bus and rail transit improvements in Wake County, but he might be ready now to ease his foot off the brake pedal.
The Wake commissioners are scheduled to talk transit at a July 21 work session. According to an informal meeting plan distributed this week to county officials and civic leaders, the commissioners will be asked for quick approval of what are largely Coble’s ideas for developing a new “transit investment strategy.”
Coble was the board chairman in 2011 when former County Manager David Cooke outlined the Wake Transit Plan – which was never discussed at a commissioners meeting again. He has served as the board’s point person on transit since then.
It was Coble’s idea to arrange a one-day discussion in February with three transit experts from Colorado and Florida, all of whom expressed doubts about proposals for light rail and commuter trains.
Now it’s Coble’s idea to gather tons of new information about existing bus service and ridership, key employment hubs and transportation corridors that might pose heavy demand for transit service in the future, and the transportation needs of Wake’s 12 municipalities and rural areas.
“Everybody won’t get the same level of service, but everybody’s got to feel they’re getting a fair deal,” Coble said. “There needs to be equity. We would not veto a plan because Wendell didn’t get the exact thing Raleigh did. But you’ve got to get everybody to the table, and you’ve got to get them to agree that the plan really helps everybody.”
Coble, a Republican, will be challenged in his bid for re-election this fall by Democrat John D. Burns. Burns says the commissioners should let voters decide next year whether to approve a Wake transit plan and a half-cent sales tax to help pay for it.
“In the past, what they’ve done is talk about it and not really do anything about it,” Burns said. “And Mr. Coble has used it as an opportunity to express his belief that we don’t need the transit plan that is currently languishing in his top desk drawer. I hope this (work session) is a discussion that leads to action.”
If voters here eventually agree, Wake will start catching up with Durham and Orange counties, where transit taxes are being collected, bus service improvements are rolling out, and planning work is under way for a 17-mile light-rail line.
“I’m so glad that we’re moving forward with the process,” said Commissioner Caroline Sullivan, a Democrat. “They’re looking at trying to hire a consultant and refresh the plan and see what they can do to move forward and try to get it on the ballot next year. At least there is some action.”
Coble said he wouldn’t rule out action by the Wake commissioners in time to schedule a transit referendum in October 2015.
“If we’re going to have something we actually talk about, we need to make sure we get the best data and it doesn’t just sit on a shelf and become outdated because too much time passes by,” Coble said. “Once we kick it off, we need to be engaged.”
Burns said Coble and rail transit skeptics have overlooked the Wake Transit Plan’s proposals for substantial bus service improvements.
“I think those improvements are desperately needed, especially in the underserved areas of east Wake and southeast Raleigh,” Burns said.
Nothing should be ruled out before the Wake commissioners “figure out what the issues are,” Coble said.
“You need to have an open mind on the whole topic,” Coble said. “I know a lot of people are going to find that hard to believe, from me.”