In Wake County, a plan sputters | Citizen | Indy Week

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In Wake County, a plan sputters

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If "Transit Makes $ense," and virtually all of the 250 people who attended a forum by that name in Raleigh last week agreed that it does, then why isn't it happening? Why is it stalled on the Raleigh-Cary side of the Triangle?

The short answer came from Jeff Merritt, a member of the board and past chair of the Triangle Transit (TT). "We don't really have a plan yet," Merritt said. "We have plans."

Et tu, TT?

The Republicans who control the Wake County Commissioners board are blocking a countywide referendum on a half-cent sales tax increase earmarked for transit—the same tax already approved by voters in Durham and Orange counties. Their stated reason is that Wake has no plan for spending the money.

True, Wake lacks an approved plan. That's because the Republicans summarily shelved the 2011 plan written by TT General Manager David King and County Manager David Cooke, refusing to discuss it for two years.

Commissioner Paul Coble, mortal enemy of transit and taxes, dismissed the King-Cooke effort as merely an idea and not a plan, which might indicate that he didn't read it. The two Davids gave us a thorough proposal that balanced, as they said, the needs of the region with the goals of the 12 Wake municipalities. You might not like it, but it's definitely a plan.

So Merritt, the only TT official who spoke at the forum, could've said that there is a plan and it should be considered, or that it's a good plan that could be modified before we go to the polls—which should happen in 2014.

Instead, Merritt echoed Coble, saying there is no plan, only "a process"—a "very nice discussion" that should continue—for deciding how it could work. Still, Merritt said, "the time for transit is now."

By now, he meant later, and that there would be no referendum in 2014.

I'm not a mind reader, but there was no mistaking Merritt's meaning. He represents the Wake commissioners on the Triangle Transit board. The Triangle Transit has three new board members, all appointees of the state and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory's administration. Finally, Merritt is executive director of the Centennial Authority, which runs the PNC Arena, and he's a former staffer at the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.

In other words, he knows which way the winds are blowing, especially from the business community. And at this point, they're gusting strongly against a referendum in 2014.

In fact, the purpose of "Transit Makes $ense," sponsored by Wake UP Wake County and the Triangle Chapter of the Women's Transportation Seminar, which represents women in the field, was to make the business case for transit and to challenge the Raleigh chamber's stubborn resistance to the transit tax.

To that end, the sponsors brought in Will Shroeer, whose job as transit director for both the Minneapolis and St. Paul chambers of commerce would be akin to his working for the Raleigh and Durham chambers here—you know, it could happen, but only when hell freezes over.

Shroeer was asked to explain how his two chambers became huge boosters of transit, with 90 percent of their combined membership listing more transit lines as their top priority. When he answered, it was as if he were describing what's missing in Wake County:

• Minneapolis went first (think Durham-Orange) with a light-rail line of its own, but only after St. Paul rejected a different light-rail line that would've connected the two cities. The Minneapolis line was "wildly successful." St. Paul leaders admitted their mistake and the other line is under construction.

• Before they endorsed a half-cent sales tax increase (to a total of three-fourths of a cent), the two chambers produced a report specifying what the money would pay for and the expected economic development impact around each transit station. Their estimate: a $4.3 billion investment would yield a minimum of $6.5 billion in new development and a maximum of $13.9 billion.

• For business, Shroeer said, the biggest selling point was that transit would allow more people to live within 30 minutes of work—meaning companies could hire from a larger talent pool.

Shroeer noted that 19 Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in his region, including General Mills and Target. Transit means these companies don't have to build parking decks, their employees save money by not driving and everyone can breathe cleaner air. Minneapolis-St. Paul chose rail transit over BRT (bus rapid transit), he said, because rail offered greater ridership capacity.

Since the takeover of Progress Energy by Duke Energy, Raleigh has no Fortune 500 headquarters. The state, county and city governments have loads of available parking, as do WakeMed and Rex hospitals. N.C. State University doesn't, but it operates its own bus line.

Ironically, Jesse Lipson, vice president of the software firm Citrix, said his company's growth depends on recruiting creative-class workers who like being downtown, which is why Citrix chose to move out of North Raleigh and into the West Side warehouse district. But he let it drop that Citrix has recruited successfully against companies in the Northeast and California because, when prospects visit, they love our low housing prices and "nonexistent traffic."

Apologetically, Lipson noted that Citrix is building a parking deck, "not a sustainable way to grow," he acknowledged. It's worth noting, that the new Citrix headquarters, under construction, is an expansion of a building formerly owned by the Triangle Transit—on a site Raleigh included in its plan for a new multimodal Union Station.

After TT sold it, with Raleigh's assent, the city came up with a new Union Station plan, but now the station would be cut off from where the light-rail line was supposed to be up on West Morgan Street.

Citrix—and its parking deck—is in between.

On Tuesday, five days after the "$ense" forum, the Wake Commissioners finally were to hold a work session to consider transit.

The King-Cooke plan was based on commuter- and light-rail lines operating in the main freight corridor owned by the N.C. Railroad Co. According to Mitch Silver, Raleigh's planning and economic development director, the 2030 Raleigh comprehensive plan depends on dense developments locating at or near the stations in the rail corridor. But Raleigh has never taken the next step and never depicted or projected how much development would occur, and where.

Thus, the payoff from a light-rail line in Raleigh is an unknown quantity.

Meanwhile, Silver's department has begun studying nine other "priority transit corridors" that could be served by buses. They include Hillsborough Street and the roads around Cameron Village and North Hills plus the usual suspects—South Saunders, Falls of Neuse, Capital Boulevard and so on.

How buses would work without getting stuck in traffic is a big question mark that the study may answer. But bus service—its advocates call it bus rapid transit (BRT)—is preferred by developers who are building density everywhere but in the rail corridor. And if they're for it, the chamber will be, too.

Buses and rail aren't necessarily competitors; one can feed the other. But everything can't go first. The lesson from Minneapolis-St. Paul is that you have to choose where to begin and how—and show why your plan is attractive to developers and voters alike.

Is there time to do that and be ready for a vote a year from now? Of course there is.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The transit engine won't start."

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