When most people think of mass transit, they envision a city bus or perhaps a light-rail line like the one being planned between Chapel Hill and Durham.
But the N.C. Department of Transportation has put out a long-range plan for transit in North Carolina that calls for public bus lines reaching out into rural parts of the state. The centerpiece of the plan is a "connected statewide network" that would enable people to take transit from small towns to cities and from one metro area to another.
The idea is that someone from Rocky Mount, Henderson or Fayetteville could take a bus to Raleigh or Chapel Hill, the way residents of the Triangle now routinely ride from one county to another.
"It's a great vision," said Karen Rindge, executive director of WakeUp Wake County, which advocates for well-planned growth. "It demonstrates that people in North Carolina are traveling greater distances to get to jobs, services and health care, and we don't really have a transit system that reflects that."
The state's current transit system, run by about 100 local government and non-profit agencies, was shaped in large part by an earlier NCDOT plan crafted in the mid-1990s by the Transit 2001 Commission. With financial help from the state, those local transit agencies provided 74 million trips in 2016, more than double the number when the commission was appointed in 1995.
But most of those trips are limited to a particular county, said Jim Ritchey, a consultant who helped NCDOT create the new plan.
“With the Transit 2001 Commission, we thought transit was going to be, a lot of it, local, and we would base it on county systems," said Ritchey, who once headed the Triangle Transit Authority, the regional agency now known as GoTriangle. "What we’ve really found is that our county boundaries now are barriers and our focus on county systems alone has been one of our challenges.”
That's starting to change. NCDOT's plan cites two bus systems that cross several county lines: the Ridge Runner, that carries passengers from five mountain counties to hospitals in Asheville, and the Down East Express, which began in January with stops in Beaufort, New Bern, Kinston, Goldsboro, Smithfield and the Triangle.
And GoTriangle has teamed up with its counterpart in the Triad — Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation or PART — to carry passengers between the two regions. GoTriangle and PART buses now meet at park-and-ride lots in Mebane.
GoTriangle will, in time, extend its reach beyond the three-county Triangle region, into Johnston, Chatham and perhaps Granville counties as demand for transit grows, said John Tallmadge, the agency's director of regional services. But what about buses to more distant destinations, such as Roxboro or Henderson, as the NCDOT strategic plan envisions?
“One of the questions is 'Are we ready for all these corridors today?', and I think the answer is probably not," Tallmadge said. "But this is intended to be a strategic plan that goes out 20 or 30 years.”
Who will pay for it?
A final version of the NCDOT plan, including recommendations for bringing it about, will be released later this year. While the state provides some funding for mass transit, it will be up to the local transit agencies to build the network, bit by bit, over time.
One outstanding question is how they will pay for it. The state will provide about $93 million for transit this year, including $25 million to help extend the Lynx light rail system in Charlotte. But the legislature's funding for the maintenance assistance program, a key source of support for local transit agencies, peaked in 2011 at $33.6 million and has remained at $32.5 million the last two years.
“We would want that to keep up with population growth and growth in costs," Tallmadge said. "But unfortunately it has fallen in the last few years."
State law also limits how much NCDOT can spend on transit construction. Under the formula for allocating transportation dollars, established by the General Assembly in 2013, no more than 6 percent is available for transit, and even then must be shared with ferries, airports and projects for bicycles and pedestrians.
“So you end up with really a quite a small percentage that can go to more traditional transit like buses and light rail," said Kym Hunter, an attorney with The Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, which has been pressing for more transit spending. Hunter said NCDOT's strategic plan is encouraging.
“I think it’s a very exciting vision, but we’ve seen exciting visions before," she said. "But without more of a commitment to actually fund the projects, it’s hard to get too excited about it.”
The people who put together the plan say demographic changes will force the state to invest more in transit. In the Triangle and other urban areas, worsening congestion on highways and growing numbers of young workers who would rather not drive everywhere will increase the use of buses and light rail. And the aging of the baby boomers will increase the number of people who will want to or have to give up driving.
With its emphasis on connecting slow-growing outlying areas with the state's booming cities, the strategic plan seems designed to appeal to a legislature dominated by representatives of rural counties. When NCDOT Secretary James Trogdon introduced the plan at the Raleigh Convention Center last week, among the speakers were leaders of the appropriations committees for transportation in the House and Senate, Sen. Jim Davis of Macon County in far southwestern North Carolina and Rep. John Torbett from the Gaston County town of Stanley, population about 3,700.
Both men admitted to being skeptical about the benefits of public transit earlier in their careers.
“If you had asked me 10 years ago about transit, I would have told you this: If it don’t pay for itself, we don’t need it," Torbett said. "I don’t believe that anymore.”
For more information about NCDOT's Public Transportation Strategic Plan, go to www.ncdot.gov/nctransit/strategicplan/.