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Road Worrier: Wake transit plan combines urban ridership, rural coverage

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Judith Linder boards a Route 1 Capital Area Transit bus in front of Tarrymore Square shopping center on Capital Boulevard.
Judith Linder boards a Route 1 Capital Area Transit bus in front of Tarrymore Square shopping center on Capital Boulevard. 2013 News & Observer file photo

Hoping to put years of delays and debates, false hopes and false starts behind them, local leaders this week are rolling out a $2.3 billion plan for trains and lots of buses that could quadruple transit ridership in Wake County by 2027.

The Wake Transit Plan stretches to satisfy both the demand for frequent, day-long bus service in Raleigh’s fast-growing urban core and the cry for connectivity in outlying towns – some of them also expanding rapidly – that have little or no public transportation now.

Maps, videos, real buses and model trains will be featured at a public unveiling for the transit plan from 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday in the ground-floor exhibit hall at the Raleigh Convention Center, 500 S. Salisbury St.

The Wake County commissioners and two other boards are expected next spring to approve the plan and call a November referendum on a half-cent local sales tax, which would help pay for it.

“Wake County is growing at 63 people a day, from people who are moving in and people who were born here,” Matt Calabria, a Wake County commissioner, told a regional business audience last week, in a preview of the Wake Transit Plan. “If we’re going to be prepared for the future – and head off the problems that can come with congestion and traffic and the kind of meteoric growth that we have in Wake County – we’re going to need to get started now.”

The plan incorporates a 37-mile commuter rail line running, mostly at rush hour, from West Durham through Research Triangle Park and Raleigh to East Garner. Wake County’s stated goal would be to get the trains up and running – along with all the planned buses – by 2027, 10 years after the proposed start of transit sales tax collections in 2017.

Bus rapid transit

Along with more standard buses rolling more frequently on more streets, the Wake Transit Plan features a criss-cross map of bus rapid transit (BRT) lines radiating out from Raleigh’s center on major streets in four directions.

Bus rapid transit is an up-and-coming, lower-cost and more flexible alternative to light rail, with bus stops that resemble rail platforms. Details and amenities vary from city to city, and planners say they probably would vary in different parts of Raleigh. Options include a dedicated lane, where BRT vehicles can zip ahead of rush-hour traffic, and traffic-signal technology that gives BRT drivers more green lights.

Outlying towns would see a lesser boost in bus service, coupled with incentives to develop homegrown transit options. Each town would have buses running to downtown Raleigh – some every 30 or 60 minutes, from 5 a.m. to midnight, and some only at rush hour. The county also would offer a 50 percent funding match to help towns in southern and eastern Wake establish their own bus service.

The Wake Transit Plan was developed over the past year in an effort that included meetings across the county, a 76-member citizen advisory committee and more than 4,000 public comments. The commissioners are not expected to make substantial changes.

Durham and Orange counties advanced their transit plans quickly after the legislature authorized the local half-cent sales tax. But public transportation faced bigger obstacles in Wake.

A Republican-dominated board of commissioners refused to discuss any Wake plan for a few years. But transit was one of the major campaign issues that helped Democrats take control of every seat in the 2014 election, and the tide turned abruptly.

Wake’s planning group considered electric-powered light rail at first. The Regional Transportation Alliance, a business group that sometimes influences state and Triangle transportation priorities, frowned on light rail and lobbied hard for the little-known alternative of bus rapid transit.

A less-expensive rail vehicle was added to the mix – diesel multiple units, with each car powered by its own diesel engine – but Norfolk Southern Railroad signaled its reluctance to let these trains share the N.C. Railroad corridor with its freight trains.

The Durham-to-Garner commuter trains would have to overcome political, financial and technical obstacles. Heavy federal funding would be needed, and Wake would count on Durham County to cover its share of capital and operating costs.

But Durham shelved commuter trains a few years ago and, for now at least, is investing most of its own transit tax receipts in a $1.5 billion Durham-Orange County light-rail project.

“There will be commuter rail ultimately,” John Kane, the North Hills developer, said last week, appearing with Calabria at a Regional Transportation Alliance gathering. “When that will happen is still a matter of timing, but it will be done. And it will connect Garner over to Durham. So this will give us connectivity throughout the Triangle.”

Wake Transit Plan details

1. Regional connections

Commuter trains run for 37 miles from West Durham through Research Triangle Park to downtown Raleigh and Garner, including stops at Morrisville and N.C. State University. The focus is on the workday rush hour, with 5 to 8 trains each way, plus two runs at midday and two in the evening. Also, express buses connect Raleigh and Chapel Hill with stops at RDU Airport and RTP.

2. Wake community links

Each Wake town has buses to downtown Raleigh. The Raleigh buses run all day, every 30 minutes from Cary and Morrisville, and every hour from Apex, Garner, Knightdale and Wake Forest. The Raleigh buses run hourly – but only during rush hour – from Fuquay-Varina, Holly Springs, Rolesville, Wendell and Zebulon.

3. Frequent, rapid urban service

Raleigh now has 17 miles of bus lines that run every 15 minutes all day; that would rise to 83 miles. These heavy-ridership lines include 20 miles of Bus Rapid Transit routes radiating out from downtown on New Bern Avenue to WakeMed, Capital Boulevard to Wake Forest Road, South Wilmington Street to Garner, and Western Boulevard to Cary.

4. Better access in neighborhoods and outlying areas

Residents in the more populous areas, mostly Raleigh and Cary, live within three-quarters of a mile of a bus stop. In the rest of the county, Wake expands TRACS, its on-demand, call-in program of vans and volunteer ride connections. All Wake towns except Raleigh and Cary become eligible for county grants to cover half the cost of new local bus service.

Major money sources, 2017-2027

Some of the expected funding sources: $962 million half-cent transit sales tax. $720 million federal funds (half the capital cost for commuter trains and BRT). $512 million bond proceeds. $112 million passenger fares. $95 million car registration fees. $41 million rental car tax. $14 million state bus funds.

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