Tracking the 1/2-cent transit tax through the Raleigh "Wye" | Citizen

Tracking the 1/2-cent transit tax through the Raleigh "Wye"

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Very interesting meeting at Raleigh City Hall last night on regional transit and the so-called "Mayor's Plan" for the Raleigh-Wake portion of the region. I will say, this thing has a lot of moving parts, some of which are picking up speed -- but enough to run a regional railroad in my or Charles Meeker's lifetime? (We're the same age.)

Perhaps.

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One question I didn't get to ask Mayor Meeker afterward is where to put the apostrophe in the name -- is it "Mayor's Plan" or "Mayors' Plan"? I believe the effort is to make it the latter. But so far, apparently, it's Meeker's plan. It's "been looked at" by the county's other 11 mayors, Meeker said as he kicked off the session. But he didn't say "endorsed."

Point is, the whole transit funding concept is back-burner for most of the county's political leaders right now, including -- as near as I can tell -- all seven of the Wake County Commissioners. They're struggling with school budgets and social services. Transit's not on their radar screens.

That said, however, Meeker is stepping up to the plate for transit, as is state Sen. Richard Stevens, a Wake Republican, as are a half-dozen of Wake's Democratic legislators including, principally, state Rep. Deborah Ross.

The biggest question mark at the moment is whether the proposed "intermodal" funding legislation -- which contains the 1/2-cent sales tax for transit option for Wake, Durham and Orange counties -- can make it through the General Assembly this year. Ross's presentation last night makes me think its chances are decent, which is not what I thought going in.

The meeting, co-sponsored by CAMPO, the Capital Area transportation planning organization (the "m" stands for metropolitan) and WakeUP Wake County, the civic group, drew 150 people, including most of Raleigh's transit groupies advocates.

Below, my three takeaways:

1) The legislation in the General Assembly (HB 148/SB 151) is much-changed from the bills that were introduced in the short session last year and went nowhere. The revisions give it much more statewide appeal, a good thing since there's no consensus for it (yet) in the Triangle.

2) The "Mayor's" plan is itself in flux. With "light rail" now the preferred mode for local transit (instead of DMUs -- diesel-powered cars), and with high-speed rail service between Charlotte-Raleigh and Richmond-Washington in view suddenly because of Obama stimulus $$$ -- Raleigh officials are starting to tinker with the map.

3. The Triangle Transit Authority (TTA) is stepping forward again, after hiding its light under the proverbial bushel for a couple of years, in an effort to help herd the region's political cats into a coordinated regional scheme. TTA General Manager David King's got skills. He'll need them.

Taking these points one at a time:

* If you're waiting for the Wake Commissioners to pass a resolution asking the General Assembly for the authority to levy a 1/2-cent sales tax for transit, well, you may be waiting for the wrong thing. The way their sponsors have rewritten the transit bills, they now call for: (a) the 1/2-cent tax authorization in the three Triangle and Triad counties, respectively; and (b) they also authorize a 1/4-cent tax for transit in 93 other counties -- every other county, that is, except Mecklenburg. (They already have the 1/2-cent tax in Mecklenburg, which is why they also have mass transit.)

Enough rural counties are interested in better bus service and/or in using short-line railroads for freight, according to Ross, that getting a 61-vote majority in the House will not necessarily depend solely -- as it did last year -- on the tender mercies of the Triangle and Triad delegations.

That's not to say that getting the bill passed will be easy, Ross says. But it's no longer considered a "local bill" governed by the unwritten rule that the rest of the legislature will go along with it, but only if there's unanimity or near-unanimity of support from the local delegation -- which, of course, there isn't. Now, HB 141 and its Senate counterpart will be treated as statewide measures.

* "Light rail" means the cars are powered by overhead electric lines and can run in a rail corridor or tracks embedded in a street. For 20 years, the region's main commuter-rail spine (the Durham-Raleigh portion in the map above) was always planned within existing rail corridors -- in the Amtrak corridor from Durham to downtown Raleigh, and then north out of Raleigh in the old Seaboard ... now CSX .. corridor. That's because using the corridors was cheap -- nothing in the way -- but since they're also used for freight service, it was assumed that the Federal Railway Administration would insist on the heavier-duty DMU cars for safety reasons, and wouldn't allow the lighter, electric-powered cars.

But now King says "it's quite possible" that a changed attitude at the FRA will allow light-rail in the freight corridtors after all. That has Raleigh planners thinking, and Raleigh's chief transportation planner Eric Lamb gave voice to this last night, that while the rail corridors are the cheap alternative for most of the route, they aren't necessarily cheaper going through Raleigh's downtown "Railroad Wye."

The "Wye" is the confluence of railroad tracks that intersect in a Y-shaped pattern just below (and to the east of) the Boylan Street bridge. The Amtrak line comes in from the west, the CSX from the north, and the North Carolina Railroad from the east. And stay tuned for the high-speed line, which may use the CSX tracks or a parallel set of Norfolk-Southern tracks as it enters Raleigh from the north, but either way, will need a l-o-n-g straightaway to s-l-o-w the high-speed cars. All of which adds up to engineering complexity and high costs if the light-rail line, too, wants to run through the "Wye," Lamb says. But if, indeed, it is light-rail, why run it through there?

So here's what Lamb is thinking, and what he's thinking reflects what Planning Director Mitch Silver is thinking too, and City Manager Russell Allen and most of Raleigh officialdom: Let's take a look at bringing the transit line OUT of the rail corridor after it goes through the NCSU campus and before it gets to the "Wye" -- say, somewhere around Central Prison. From there, run it into the downtown on tracks embedded in West Hargett St. or West Morgan St.

Then, when it reaches Raleigh's hoped-for, dreamt-of "Multi-Modal Transit Station" of the future -- "our Grand Central," Lamb called it -- maybe the line just ends. Similarly, the North Raleigh-DT Raleigh rail-transit spur, running in the CSX corridor for most or all of its route, could also end.

In other words, the full, 17-mile Phase I Wake County rail-transit line from NW Cary to NE Raleigh need not be one continuous line, Lamb suggested. It could be two lines that "meet" at the Grand Central station only in the sense that it's just a short walk through the terminal from one line to the other.

And maybe a third line comes into the station from Johnston County, using the NCRR corridor.

* Lamb's idea is consistent with the view of a lot of Raleigh folks -- in business and in politics -- that the Capital City is becoming the center of its own region as much or more than the eastern tip of the Triangle. Bringing commuters into Raleigh from Johnston County and Franklin County and from Cary and Apex is the point of transit from their standpoint, more than it is delivering commuters to RTP or Durham from Raleigh -- to say nothing of delivering them from North Raleigh.

To put it mildly, there's a whole lot of skepticism that many commuters from NE Raleigh will travel to RTP on a rail-transit route that loops them south through DT Raleigh -- with or without a continuous line.

* One thing that was crystal-clear last night is that, for the next decade or more, regional transit, whether in the Triangle region or the Raleigh region, means buses. Not rail. The earliest rail service might start, King said, is December, 2019. And that's a date predicated on one or more of the three Triangle counties approving the 1/2-cent sales tax for transit by 2011 -- which, in turn, assumes that the General Assembly has authorized such a thing in the current legislative session.

Once the bill is enacted, then each county's board of commissioners must put the question of a 1/2-cent tax to its voters, either all at the same time, or two of them but not the third, or one at a time.

Best case, as King described it:

First, the three counties adopt their own transit plans. Wake's plan (the Mayor's Plan) -- just a draft right now, nothing more, he emphasized -- calls for using the 1/2-cent tax to buy 100 new buses over the next 10 years, 75 of them by 2013, while it socks away enough money to start building the rail line at the end of the decade. Durham and Orange will have their own plans.

Second, everybody passes that 1/2-cent sales tax and gets started.

Third, the three plans are such that they grow together, and in the fullness of time are interconnected in a seamless and efficent "regional" plan with rail-transit as its spine and excellent bus service -- by TTA and the local bus companies --  as its tentacles. We are a region, King kept saying. The world views us as a region. And a region, to be first-rate, needs regional transit.

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