Transit, clean water and schools key to keeping Triangle economically sound

Bicyclists make their way along the greenway trail heading towards the NC Museum of Art from the pedestrian bridge over the Beltline. This trail goes past the NC Museum of Art and on through Umstead State Park.
Bicyclists make their way along the greenway trail heading towards the NC Museum of Art from the pedestrian bridge over the Beltline. This trail goes past the NC Museum of Art and on through Umstead State Park. JOHN ROTTET

Yet again, U.S. Census reports highlight the greatest challenge of the Triangle – stunning population growth. Small town or city, we’re all feeling it. The Triangle and Charlotte regions account for more than two-thirds of North Carolina’s growth with a population that’s surpassed 10 million.

Our challenge is to act in big ways to plan for 63 more people a day in Wake County alone while ensuring prosperity. How?

Vision and bold leadership in planning for future needs are critical, according to Jim Goodmon, CEO of WRAL and Durham Bulls owner. When a highly successful corporate leader speaks about community priorities, it’s wise to listen. He’s talked to hundreds of businesses considering locating here, and notably, the first questions they ask are about our public schools and quality of life. Surprisingly, they never mention corporate tax rates.

Business leaders understand the value of making sound investments to ensure future prosperity. Investing in quality of life fundamentals, including public schools, efficient public transit, parks and clean water, yields economic growth and new jobs when businesses choose to locate here. An Economic Development Research Group study released in March indicates regional public transit plans alone could generate over $26 billion in sales, additional Gross Regional Product and wages, if fully implemented in our region.

Rapid population growth stresses our daily quality of life. While cars will continue to be in our future, development planned solely for automobiles is hitting a point of diminishing returns. The amount of time we spend in cars continues to rise because of longer distance commutes, increased traffic and a lack of transportation alternatives. We’re wasting precious time sitting in traffic and hurting our own quality of life.

New transportation options like better, frequent public transit, biking access and walkable communities are the trend across the country. Why? Because our time and health are valuable, and they translate directly into the economy. Businesses are drawn to cities that have bike sharing programs and multiple transit alternatives, including rapid bus and rail lines.

Millennials – our economic future – are already making the switch by driving fewer miles per person than previous generations and choosing transit, walking and biking over cars. We need to invest in the proposed Wake County transit plan of expanded, frequent bus service and commuter rail, likely before voters this November.

Because of growth, Wake County needs to build 17 more schools in the next six years, and many aging, well-used schools are desperate for renovations. Investing in school buildings as well as our students and teachers must be a continued priority, even if you don’t have kids in school. Wake’s public schools generate billions of dollars in local economic benefits, according to a recent NCSU study.

Most of us don’t think about what sustains us daily – clean water. No one likes increases in water and sewer fees, but without safe drinking water we not only put our health at risk (think Flint, Mich.), but cannot sustain our economy. Many businesses – from pharmaceutical manufacturers to beer brewers – depend on access to clean water. Rapid population growth puts more pressure on the streams, rivers and lakes that are our lifeline. Lawmakers must keep clean-up plans in place and on schedule for Falls Lake and reinstate the Jordan Lake water rules immediately. There is no safe option for delay.

A vision for a better tomorrow and strong leadership are vital for making sound investments in transit, schools, and clean water to ensure our quality of life in the midst of unprecedented population growth. We should learn from the experiences of successful business leaders like Goodmon. Our towns and cities must be planned with careful thought about how people wish to live, work and get around.

Communities that are livable, dynamic and simply nice places to be are prosperous and, ultimately, sustainable for decades to come.

Karen Rindge is the executive director of WakeUP Wake County, a citizens’ voice for good growth planning and sustainable, healthy communities.