In November 2011, Triangle Transit and Wake County staff presented the Garner board of commissioners a detailed transit plan.
In November 2014, voters will decide whether, among other questions, county commissioners dragged their collective feet on the plan or appropriately held back from making a move.
All four Republicans on the seven-member board face re-election this year, and transit has represented a key talking point for the quartet of Democrats trying to take their places.
The GOP incumbents include Garner resident Phil Matthews, who expresses pride in his party’s work as county leaders since he came into office in 2010.
He pointed to this summer’s launch of a fast-study due out early next year as indicative of an active stance on transit. He characterizes the years since the earlier transit plan a function of timing, prioritization, and a cautious approach taken by him and his fellow commissioners.
“It’s all been a part of our timing. People say ‘You’re doing it because it’s an election year. It’s the furthest thing from the truth,” Matthews said. “Transit was in there (among priorities) but wasn’t at the top. Coming out of the recession dollars were very precious, and we wanted to put them where we needed them most.”
Matthews points to higher priorities including the school bond that will build 16 new schools and renovate several others as well as finding a new county manager (hiring Jim Hartmann to replace departed David Cooke) among the reasons why transit found the back burner.
But his opponent, Matt Calabria, said the 2011 effort provided more than enough study – more, he says, than subsequent studies including the current iteration – for the county to move forward. And he called Matthew’s explanation a “walk-and-chew-gum” argument.
“To say they were too distracted with hiring a county manager justifies several years of inaction simply doesn’t hold water,” Calabria said, arguing Matthews’ was delaying the inevitable. “Many of the folks who have looked at it have found a substantial ridership base that will sustain public transit.”
While Calabria agreed with Matthews that options should be well-vetted and spending choices responsibly made, he did not share Matthew’s aversion to rail and said the area’s rapid growth would continue to result in increasing traffic problems if the county doesn’t get out in front of it.
A plan on a shelf
The 2011 county staff’s draft plan, updated in 2012, calls for a half-cent sales tax increase and a $10 vehicle registration fee. That money would fund a core plan of bus and commuter rail. Nearly doubling the level of bus service within four years would cost roughly $329 million, about $139 million of which would have to be county-funded.
The plan also proposes a 12-station commuter rail along existing lines connecting West Durham to downtown Durham, Morrisville, Cary, Raleigh and Garner. The portion in Wake County would cost $330 million, which the plan estimates the county could afford with the tax increases.
Light-rail was part of a longer-range plan that would not be funded by the tax increase; federal dollars would have to come into play for that to become feasible according to the plan.
Commissioners never let the county vote on the sales tax increase. To him, the county wasn’t ready. And while he said he’s interested in bus expansion, he particularly thinks Wake County is not dense enough yet for commuter rail or light rail.
“None of them can sustain themselves, they’re very expensive. With bus rapid transit you have flexibility (to change routes that don’t work),” Matthews said.
Instead of moving on the plan, commissioners asked county staff a series of questions and eventually decided not to act on the plan. In November 2013, it brought in a panel of three visiting experts from universities, who said Raleigh wasn’t ready for rail at this point. They urged closer looks at bus transit, with lower costs and dedicated lanes that allow buses to avoid the same traffic problems people take trains to avoid.
The board’s GOP majority called it validation of their decision to wait. Calabria dismissed that assertion, saying that far more expert work and research went into the creation of the plan than the experts Cooke and the commissioners chose to bring into the discussion. For him, the pattern, including the summer’s rekindled interest in transit, paints an obvious picture.
“Without any new information they have had a change of heart before election day. They’ve started a process we have already done once,” the Fuquay-Varina lawyer said. “What they profess to be interested in and how they have acted say two different things.”
Matthews cites the new bus line from the Cleveland WalMart to downtown Raleigh as an example of misaligned transit efforts, and why bus transit makes more sense than rail. The commuter’s route set up for the Fortify project to rebuild I-40 often has just a few riders, if any.
“That’s probably not a popular route,” Matthews said. “And with bus transit the mistake can be fixed.”
But Calabria said that doesn’t provide a good example of the potential commuter rail route, which hits more densely populated areas than Johnston County including Research Triangle Park, downtown Raleigh, N.C. State, Cary, and Durham.
Garner and other cities on the route support the project believing that it could bring smart development, spurring high-density residential and commercial development in area’s such as Garner’s downtown and Greenfield industrial area.
The Raleigh Transportation Alliance, which is linked to the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, advocated in October 2013 for a closer look at bus transit rather than investing so much in one corridor.
Shrewd investment or just spending
Matthews has said he wouldn’t change a thing about the last four years, and expresses pride in the fact that voters approved the only tax raise in that time: for school construction. He said the Democrats running merely want to raise taxes and spend, and that they lack the experience to do so responsibly. He said the low taxes and responsible government have been the cause of the county’s rapid growth.
“We do have low taxes and we’re business friendly,” Matthews said. “There’s good examples of high-paying jobs coming in.”
Calabria disagrees, citing investment as a key to the area. He said companies point to education systems and infrastructure as key reasons they choose areas like the Triangle. He said investments in Research Triangle Park, the Raleigh Convention Center and public education have done more than lower taxes, which other states also have.
“Those are historical investments, ones made by prior county commissioners, municipal leaders. They are smart investments in our future,” Calabria said. “The current majority on the county commissioners is parting from our proud legacy in Wake County.”