Wake County

U.S. Secretary Foxx pushes for traffic solutions ahead of Wake’s transit vote

President Barack Obama’s top transportation adviser noticed one thing in particular about the Triangle on Monday afternoon as his plane descended on RDU International Airport: “an insane amount of traffic.”

With Wake residents poised to vote on a countywide transit plan this fall, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx visited Raleigh on Monday to tout the importance of treating population growth with an array of transportation options.

The Wake Transit Plan aims to reduce traffic congestion and connect the Triangle’s focal points, such as N.C. State University, Research Triangle Park, Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill. Voters will decide Nov. 8 whether to fund the plan through a half-cent sales tax increase.

In Wake, the sales tax is currently 6.75 cents per dollar; the state collects 4.75 cents of that, and the county gets 2 cents. If voters approve the tax increase, it would account for about $1 billion of the project’s cost in the first decade.

Foxx spoke at the Raleigh Convention Center on Monday night during an event for WakeUP Wake County, a local nonprofit that advocates for smart growth and supports the Wake Transit Plan. Without directly endorsing the plan, Foxx suggested Wake residents change the way they commute or prepare to leave the next generation with driving conditions worse than today’s.

“If you think the last 20-25 years has been like a tsunami, you just wait,” Foxx said. “You are at the epicenter of a national crisis in mobility.”

Foxx, through the U.S. Department of Transportation, has urged communities across the country to adopt more sustainable transportation systems. Planners say bus system improvements, coupled with commuter rail, could quadruple transit ridership in Wake County over the next decade.

Headlining the plan is a commuter train line that would run from eastern Wake through Raleigh, Cary, Morrisville, Research Triangle Park and someday into Durham. Riders could take a train to Morrisville and hop on a bus to Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

It also includes 20 miles of “bus rapid transit” service, known as BRT. Unlike traditional bus systems, BRT often provides faster service than other automobile traffic by running in dedicated lanes – meaning they don’t have to fight traffic – and by getting special priority at traffic signals.

County leaders for years have talked about improving Wake’s transit options but didn’t pursue a defined plan until Democrats gained control of the board in 2014. Republicans who previously controlled the board argued, among other things, that Wake doesn’t have enough population density to warrant a large transit investment.

Some still worry that it doesn’t offer enough for Wake’s rural communities.

“At best, it’s going to only serve the more urban areas of our county,” said John Adcock of Fuquay-Varina, who’s running for Wake’s Board of Commissioners in the new District B against Morrisville town councilwoman Vicki Scroggins-Johnson, a Democrat.

Foxx, however, warned against inaction.

“You’ve got to figure out if the travel times you have today are the travel times you want to have tomorrow,” he said. “They’re gonna get worse if you don’t do something different.”

Charlotte has a rail system that its residents approved through a half-cent sales tax referendum in 1998. Foxx, a former Charlotte mayor, told the crowd that such investments help North Carolina compete for jobs against other major U.S. cities.

“If I were mayor of Charlotte, I probably would be giving you a different speech,” Foxx said. “I would probably tell you not to do this so that we could compete with you better.”

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht