Wake County

Wake leaders break the ice on transit talk

Transit will be on the agenda Friday when the Wake County commissioners gather for a retreat in Holly Springs, but they are not expected to dip into details of a moldering plan for buses and trains that the Republican-led board received in 2011 – and never discussed.

Democratic candidates and other transit advocates are impatient to see Wake catch up with Durham and Orange counties, where shoppers pay a voter-authorized sales tax for transit investments and the federal government has given the go-ahead for planning work on a 17-mile light-rail line.

But transportation planners say they’ll need at least a year to refresh the stale Wake plan and recirculate it throughout the county and its dozen municipalities. Under their most hopeful timetable, they figure they could develop a new consensus plan in time for a Wake County referendum in fall 2015.

The commissioners may give a signal Friday as to whether even that schedule is too optimistic. It’s not clear that they’re ready to make transit a priority this year.

They’ll have to be ready to figure out how to beef up bus service, which is anemic or nonexistent across much of the sprawling county, and how to pay for it. In Raleigh and Cary, the big-dollar questions center on whether Wake is ready to sink hundreds of millions of dollars into commuter trains or light-rail lines. And there is new enthusiasm for bus rapid transit service – a rubber-tire hybrid featuring buses that can act like trains and, in some cities, cost almost as much.

Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams, a Democrat, is eager to see the commissioners approve a plan and put it before voters. His town occupies a sweet spot on a proposed 37-mile line for rush-hour commuter trains that would run between West Durham and southeast Wake, stopping at Duke University, Research Triangle Park, Morrisville, Cary, N.C. State University and downtown Raleigh.

“It’s going to be years out, anyway, but you’ve got to get started,” said Williams, who serves as chairman of CAMPO, a regional planning board of local elected officials that also has a say in the transit plan. “The people talking to me are in favor of transit. ... Any tax burden that would occur would not be on the commissioners. That would be up to the citizens to decide.”

Coble still skeptical

Republican Paul Coble of Raleigh chaired the county commissioners when they effectively shelved the original Wake plan in 2011, and his successors have given him the lead role on the issue since then. It was his idea to bring in three national transit experts who admonished Wake County in November to think less about trains and more about buses.

Coble said the commissioners will start with a big-picture conversation about transit Friday and follow up with deeper discussion in a future work session. He is concerned about transit governance – he notes that Wake, Raleigh and Cary have only five of the 10 voting positions on the board of Triangle Transit, the three-county bus and planning agency, “even though we put in 70 percent of the money.”

Coble doubts that the fees and half-cent sales tax authorized by state law for Triangle transit investments would generate enough money to cover the expense. And he warns that Wake will have to address concerns in outlying towns where residents might see little benefit from big rail transit investments.

“The town of Wendell has said, ‘We don’t want to be involved in this if all we’re going to get is a bus ride to Triangle Town Center,’ ” Coble said. “Let’s say the guys in Zebulon don’t want anything, yet they’re going to be paying taxes. How is that possibly fair?”

With the long-postponed debate soon to begin, county leaders are withholding comment for now on issues that are likely to be contentious.

Coble said he doesn’t know how soon a county referendum would be possible. He has voiced skepticism in the past about the cost and benefits of rail transit, and he has warmed recently toward the new talk about bus rapid transit – fostered by the visiting experts in November and by the Regional Transportation Alliance, a business group that advocates for road and other transportation improvements.

But he said it is premature to push bus rapid transit as a substitute for trains.

“I’m not prepared to say anything is a replacement for anything else,” Coble said. “We need to look at whatever our actual needs are versus what we can afford, and what’s the most cost-effective system we can operate that’s going to do what we need to do.”

Transit planners seek guidance

Sig Hutchinson of Raleigh, a Democrat hoping to unseat Republican Commissioner Joe Bryan in the fall election, is pressing the commissioners for action. But – like Bryan and others in the debate – he isn’t staking himself out on questions about trains versus buses, and other particulars. First, he said, Wake leaders must agree on where transit service is needed and what it would accomplish.

“The technology should be the last decision, not the first decision,” Hutchinson said.

David King, Triangle Transit’s general manager, and former County Manager David Cooke visited the county’s 12 town and city councils a few years ago as they were developing the old Wake County plan. Cooke originally had said he would ask the local boards to vote on the county plan, but commissioners later asked him not to seek local approval. He retired last year.

Cooke’s successor, who may be named as soon as Friday by the Wake commissioners, could have the job of working with King on a new plan.

King said planners will need 12 to 15 months to update the Wake plan. Wake sales tax collections are running higher than had been expected three years ago, so planners are likely to increase their projections for how much money would be available from a half-cent sales tax.

Like Coble, King said he was concerned with balancing questions of equity for rural and small-town residents – giving them their fair share of new transit service – while also considering urban rail lines that would cost millions of dollars per mile.

“So that is the delicate dance, putting together the county plan,” King said Wednesday at a meeting of the Triangle Transit trustees. “We did it once, and we’ll have to re-do it. ... There’s a lot to reconsider.”

Bus rapid transit appears likely to find a big part on Wake’s new plan.

“I could see bus rapid transit, probably, when we do make the move, probably being a potential lead element,” said Republican Phil Matthews of Garner, the commissioners’ chairman. “We want to test it out in a few locations.”

Raleigh is studying nine street corridors that have potential for bus rapid transit improvements. Likely candidates include New Bern Avenue, a busy bus route with wide medians that provide elbow room for transit improvements.

Caroline Sullivan of Raleigh, a Democratic county commissioner, warns that bus rapid transit is “not cheap.” She agrees that it might have a place on New Bern and other city corridors, but she is skeptical about it as a replacement for trains.

“I think bus rapid transit on I-40 might be difficult,” Sullivan said.

Transit planners will study the city’s ideas about good spots for bus rapid transit, King said, and they’ll wait to learn what the county commissioners want to do about trains and buses.

“I’m glad they’re talking about it,” King said. “We’d like some guidance.”

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