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Competing agendas threaten transit planning

Wake reps back off STAC proposal

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For an update, read "STAC: Pushback against the pushback" on our Citizen blog (posted Friday, Feb. 29)

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As the Triangle's Special Transit Advisory Commission attempts to wrap up its work this spring, pushback from Wake County officials threatens to undermine the regional vision for public transit that the 29-member group has spent nine months crafting.

Harvey Schmidt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, says the STAC's 2020 start-up plan—a 56-mile commuter rail route that would connect the three corners of the Triangle at a cost of $2 billion or more—was overreaching. Schmidt says he'd like to see transit develop in the region the same way the greenway system has: There's a framework envisioned, but the local jurisdictions move ahead on their respective segments as they're ready to pay for them.

"I'm not opposed to a regional plan," he adds. "I'm just trying to figure out how to get one passed" by voters.

Schmidt's not a member of the STAC, but he's following its work closely and meeting with the Raleigh business officials who are members.

Wake County representatives' reluctance to get on board may limit the STAC's ability to help resolve the fundamental problems of mass transit in the Triangle—including who should run it and how to pay for it.

It's a question of whether the STAC should go beyond a general vision of transit services in the Triangle's future that all of its 29 members appear to share and attempt to offer recommendations about how that vision should be implemented.

That question may—or may not—be raised Feb. 29, when the STAC meets to begin drafting its final report.

In interviews over the past two weeks, commission members and staff have described the emerging view among Wake County's representatives, especially those from the business community, that the STAC should stay out of operational issues and leave them to the three county governments to decide for themselves.

What really seemed to set off alarm bells in Raleigh was discussion of a "Charlotte-level of effort" at financing—which might take the form of a regional tax like the half-cent sales tax used by Charlotte-Mecklenburg for its transit system.

The different view out of Raleigh was acknowledged by George Cianciolo, the STAC co-chair from the western side of the Triangle.

"I understand where they're coming from," he says. Wake's concern is about setting priorities, with questions of transit funding bumping into the county's backlog of other needs, especially more schools and more water.

Raleigh members have also raised red flags about equity, Cianciolo and other officials say. Since Wake County has two-thirds of the Triangle's population, it's wary of contributing money to a regional body that may vote to spend it—or too much of it—outside of Wake.

STAC members were appointed by the region's two metropolitan transportation organizations (MPOs), which do the road and transit planning for the Triangle. The Capital Area MPO, is governed by elected officials from Wake County. Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro MPO is comprised of Durham and Orange officials.

Cianciolo was appointed by the Durham-Chapel Hill group. His CAMPO-appointed co-chair, Bill Cavanaugh, declined to be interviewed. Cavanaugh, the retired chairman and CEO of Progress Energy, had his secretary refer questions to STAC staffer Ann Hartell, who works for the Institute for Transportation Research and Education (ITRE), a nonprofit based at N.C. State University.

Hartell says geographic equity is not a new subject for any regional group, but it is especially tricky for the STAC, since the availability of federal and state funds—at the close of the Bush and Easley administrations—is so uncertain.

The STAC's staffers are drawn from ITRE, the two metropolitan planning organizations and the Triangle Transit Authority, as well as the Triangle J Council of Governments, the Public Transportation Division of NC DOT and the Regional Transportation Alliance.

The future of transit in the Triangle will depend on the three counties' willingness to pay for it, since they have taxing authority that the TTA and MPOs lack, Hartell says. But whether they pay for it separately or—as they do with the small taxes that support the TTA's current bus services—through a jointly controlled regional tax district "is an issue they have to grapple with," she says. "Or somebody does."

Smedes York, a former Raleigh mayor and the CAMPO-appointed vice chair, says he thinks the STAC's shared vision and a revised 2020 plan is enough to give county officials and the MPOs "a very clear direction" even if operational questions aren't addressed.

The chairs and co-chairs, York and Cianciolo confirmed, have agreed to eliminate the Cary-to-Research Triangle Park segment from the 2020 rail scheme, which seemed to have consensus support at the Feb. 4 meeting. It wasn't a priority for Wake, they say. (Cianciolo says the Cary-RTP segment will be a "dotted line on the map" for future construction.) The group's leaders have also agreed to downplay the 2020 date in general, since it's unlikely most of the rail line can be built by then, and emphasize their 2035 vision. Enhanced bus services, particularly in Raleigh, is step on, they say.

"Setting a 2020 date was maybe a mistake," Cianciolo says. "It was meant as a way to get people's attention" and rally the public behind a general vision, which includes a 2035 timetable for extending transit routes throughout the Triangle and beyond.

Some Durham and Orange County representatives want the operational issues discussed before the STAC finishes its efforts. But they also recognize that if they are, the debate may only serve to deepen the divisions that exist below the surface and wreck the group's apparent consensus.

The whole matter of whether to present a "plan" has been the uninvited guest at STAC meetings since they began nine months ago. At the outset, staffers presented the members with a five-part outline of what their final report might include. The first three parts were: a statement about whether transit investments should be made in the region and why; where they should be made; and what kind of service (bus, rail, other) would work best in each place. Those three subjects have dominated the meetings since.

The other two—when should these investments occur, and how—have barely been touched. They include topics like reshaping land use patterns to support transit, paying for it, and "improving" governance, a kind of catch-all invitation for the STAC to recommend how the counties might work better together.

"If you don't have a plan to pay for it, you don't have a plan" was the punch line of the staff's initial presentation.

In recent meetings, TTA General Manager David King has encouraged STAC members to take up the subject of transit funding and governance, but very gingerly, as he told the Indy. The TTA is viewed with suspicion and as "less than accountable" by many local officials, especially in Wake, following the collapse of its own rail-transit plan two years ago. So its staff has stayed in the background while the STAC wrestles with the same questions it did, he says.

"But I do kind of hope [these questions] come up Friday," King added, "because they need to be discussed. And I think it would be healthy if this dynamic is acknowledged."

Correction (Feb. 28, 2008): Staff assistance for the STAC is also supplied by the Triangle J Council of Governments, the Public Transportation Division of NC DOT, and the Regional Transportation Alliance, in addition to the two MPOs, ITRE and TTA mentioned in the story.

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