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Road Worrier: Wake turning away from rail transit

The need for good bus service in Wake County is overwhelming, so we should quadruple it over the next decade.

The obstacles to rail transit here may be insurmountable, so we shouldn’t count on catching a train to work in the near future.

That’s the current thinking from planners, business types, politicos and a big ad hoc citizen committee helping county commissioners plan for a referendum – expected in November 2016 – to authorize a half-cent sales tax for transit investments.

Keep in mind that these are just the latest ideas. Over the past 20 years, Wake and Triangle leaders have cycled through a mind-numbing series of plans for local and regional transit service.

Wake is playing catch-up with Orange and Durham, where voters approved the transit sales tax three and four years ago. Leaders in Wake have dithered over whether they should help plan for the entire region or worry only about its biggest county.

Wake’s 72-member Transit Advisory Committee made its big push for buses in late October. The group dropped a “rail rapid transit” option it had considered earlier for Wake County, but it introduced the prospect of joining with Durham County – probably in a distant future – to operate rush-hour trains for commuters.

Building bus ridership

There was an endorsement for extending a wider web of bus routes across the Wake County map, to cover rural neighborhoods and outlying towns that have no transit now. But the group said the county should invest 60 to 70 percent of the sales tax funds in high-traffic corridors, with more frequent bus service to build heavy ridership.

“One of the reasons so few people take the bus now is that we just don’t have enough bus capacity – both coverage and frequency,” Sig Hutchinson, a county commissioner, said Monday. “You don’t have a system that’s functional. You spend all day on the bus trying to get from point A to point B. It’s important to get started so we can build a viable transit system that people want to take.”

The recommendation includes about 20 miles of bus rapid transit, which rolls on rubber tires but enjoys some of the benefits of light rail – including, in some cities, an exclusive roadway where cars can’t get in the way.

Electric-powered light-rail trains were knocked out of the running in Wake early this year, replaced for consideration by a rail rapid transit line using self-propelled rail cars called DMUs (diesel multiple units). Now the commissioners have been advised to forget about rail rapid transit altogether.

That’s because Norfolk Southern, the region’s dominant freight railroad, has sounded warnings about the safety, expense and complicated logistics involved in the trains and tracks that would be needed to provide rail transit service every 15 to 30 minutes.

“If these operations ... were contemplated in a joint freight-passenger operation, the passenger operations would essentially crowd out the freight service,” John V. Edwards, who oversees passenger policy for Norfolk Southern, said in a June 16 letter to County Manager Jim Hartmann.

“If the contemplated passenger operation was envisioned on separate, dedicated tracks..., the footprint of the passenger infrastructure required to support such an operation would be significant.”

North Carolina Railroad, which leases its tracks to Norfolk Southern, will have a better handle on this in 2017 when it finishes a study about track layouts and long-term railroad needs in the Triangle.

Given these doubts as they face a 2016 referendum, Wake leaders don’t want to make promises about trains they might not be able to keep.

Durham-Wake commuter trains

“We could not deliver a DMU option that was financially viable in a time frame that worked for all of us,” Hutchinson said.

But he says there may still be trains in our distant future. Hutchinson approves of a new wrinkle in the advisory committee’s recommendation: Wake should plan and make investments in a multi-county commuter-train line, probably the one proposed for N.C. Railroad tracks from Durham through Research Triangle Park and Raleigh, ending in Garner or beyond.

“For the plan to be viable, it needs to go from Clayton, I believe, to Durham,” Hutchinson said. “We all agreed we’re not going to wait for Durham. We’re going to move forward with our plan.”

That’s a funny way to put it. Wake not waiting for Durham?

Durham stopped waiting for Wake County years ago.

Voters in Durham County were eager in 2011 to team up with Wake on a new regional commuter rail line. They approved a half-cent sales tax to pay for big bus and rail transit investments. Their first priority was to get trains running back and forth at rush hour from Durham through Research Triangle Park and Raleigh to Garner.

But when Wake balked at even considering a transit plan, Durham shrugged and turned to its other Triangle neighbor.

Now, along with bus improvements, a light-rail line from Chapel Hill to Durham is the priority for planning efforts and transit investments in Orange County – which approved the transit sales tax in 2012 – and Durham County. The rush-hour trains have been shelved.

“Unfortunately, because Wake had delayed, we had to move forward,” Durham Mayor Bill Bell said Monday. “We couldn’t afford to wait. Our focus right now has been the plans we’ve put together for light rail.”

But Bell has always held out hope for a rail line through RTP, and he welcomes the new glimmer of a Triangle-wide perspective in Wake County.

“To just ignore the other counties would be ill-advised,” Bell said. “We need to connect. ... I would hope if Wake is serious about it, that we’ll find a way to make that happen. It’s just that important.”

Bus rapid transit corridors

Wake planners will look at four corridors – pointing north, east, south and west from downtown Raleigh – for likely investment in bus rapid transit:

▪ Capital Boulevard, heading north toward I-540.

▪ New Bern Avenue to WakeMed.

▪ Wilmington and Saunders streets, south toward Garner.

▪ Western Boulevard and N.C. 54 west toward Cary.