Wake County

Raleigh is getting upgraded bus lines. Can officials ensure nearby affordable housing?

Huddled around tables Saturday, groups of six to eight people used blue Lego blocks laid over maps of Raleigh to show how and where they’d like to see development around planned rapid bus routes.

A bus rapid transit system, or BRT, is a key part of the Wake Transit Plan, endorsed when voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase in 2016 to pay for it. BRT lines effectively act like light rail, with buses running more frequently in dedicated lanes, while passengers can wait on raised, covered platforms.

Allowing denser development around the BRT lines could provide more potential riders, but city officials are concerned the upgraded system also might lead to steadily rising home prices and rents, effectively pricing some would-be riders out of nearby neighborhoods. Jason Hardin, a Raleigh city planner who manages the equitable development project, previously told The News & Observer he doesn’t see the BRTs causing more development, but the lines are often planned for areas already gentrifying and growing as more people move inside the Beltline.

Saturday’s workshop at Martin Street Baptist Church allowed about 75 residents a chance to tell Raleigh city planners how dense they would like to see the areas around the BRT lines become as the city continues to develop. Planners intend to pair that feedback with information gleaned from online surveys to help shape city policies describing how the corridors around the BRT lines should develop and how affordable housing should be incorporated.

“We want to make sure that the benefit of the transit investment is shared broadly, including among existing residents of these corridors,” Hardin said.

Options presented Saturday included one with higher density, where zoning would allow for 12-story buildings in mixed-use areas and seven-story buildings in more residential areas near the BRT lines; a moderate option with seven-story buildings allowed in mixed-use and retail areas and four-story buildings in residential areas; and no change, with three-story buildings near the BRT lines, no matter the surrounding use.

The Raleigh City Council continues to debate a potential affordable housing bond in 2020, but it remains unclear how that could be shaped by recent elections that saw four newcomers elected along with a new mayor. In a May presentation, city staff outlined a bond proposal ranging from $37.7 to $75.7 million, with 30% of that potentially being used to purchase land along transit corridors such as the BRT lines.

While Saturday’s workshop asked participants to envision development throughout the county, future efforts will seek residents’ input on development around individual routes or stations. Those exercises will happen during the planning process for each BRT line, The News & Observer previously reported.

“The real work will come when we do some very specific station-area planning exercises,” Hardin said.

Ouida Watson was among those participating in Saturday’s workshop. Watson said her son tried to ride the bus while working a minimum wage job, but often ended up catching a ride from his mother due to the wait times and times of day service was offered.

Watson also sounded a note of anticipation toward the station-level planning, saying residents tend to have better understanding of the specific transportation and affordability struggles in their own neighborhoods.

“I’d like to have MIMBYs, (maybe in my backyards),” Watson said. “So instead of everything being one way or the other, look at the factors like the transportation (options), where people work, where do they live and try to mesh those things rather than having an us-and-them kind of thing.”

Raleigh transportation planners say they hope to complete the first BRT route, running on New Bern Avenue from downtown to New Hope Road, by winter 2023. By 2027, they hope to complete all four lines, which will also include a route along Western Boulevard past N.C. State to a yet-to-be-determined terminus in Cary, a northern corridor using Capital Boulevard to Crabtree Boulevard and a southern corridor that will use South Wilmington or South Saunders streets to reach Garner.

Current estimates call for the construction of 22 miles of dedicated bus lanes and associated infrastructure to cost about $350 million. Some of that money will come from the voter-approved sales tax hike, but city transportation planners are also hoping to use federal grants to pay for the work.

In addition to the BRT, the Wake Transit Plan calls for a leap by 2027 in the amount of the city that will have bus service every 15 minutes, from about 17 miles today to about 83 miles. Many of those increased routes are expected to tie into the BRT lines.

Alex Lane, another attendee of Saturday’s meeting, praised city planners for thinking proactively about how affordable housing and future transit options could tie together.

“It seems like if you don’t have a plan in place prior and you just kind of designate these routes to kind of be there, then I think it’s going to be tougher for affordable housing to really come up (nearby),” Lane said. “Making sure that we have a plan in place with affordable housing in mind along these corridors is probably what we have to have happen.”

Raleigh is hosting two upcoming meetings about BRT lines, with the New Bern Avenue corridor the subject of a meeting from 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Martin Street Baptist Church, 1001 E. Martin St. The Western Boulevard corridor, which is planned to run from Raleigh through N.C. State’s campus before ending in Cary, will be discussed from 4 to 8 p.m. on Nov. 12 at the McKimmon Center, 1101 Gorman St.

Residents can also visit https://publicinput.com/5603/ to offer planners feedback about how the areas around BRT should support affordable housing.

This story was produced with financial support from Report for America/GroundTruth Project, the North Carolina Community Foundation and the North Carolina Local News Lab Fund. The News & Observer maintains full editorial control of the work.

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Adam Wagner is a Report for America Corps member covering North Carolina’s recovery from Hurricanes Matthew and Florence, as well as efforts to prepare the state for future storms. He previously worked at the Wilmington StarNews, where he covered multiple beats, including the environment.