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Mass transit at a standstill in Wake County



It's another year lost—and probably some key capital area properties as well—in what is now a quarter-century-long effort to launch public transit and transit-oriented development in Raleigh, Wake County and the eastern half of the Triangle.

Wake County will not vote in November on a 1/2-cent sales tax increase for transit, the only funding mechanism provided for local governments by the General Assembly. Wake County's Republican-led Board of Commissioners continues to block the vote. Orange County voters will decide the question this fall. Durham voters approved the 1/2-cent tax last year; the county is waiting for one of its two Triangle partners to join it.

Not only won't Wake's Republican commissioners allow the public to vote, they have refused to even listen to the transit plan put together—at their own direction—by County Manager David Cooke and David King, general manager of the Triangle Transit Authority. The two designed the plan in concert with Wake's 12 municipal governments.

"Nah," was Wake Commissioners Chair Paul Coble's dismissive response when a Democratic member, Erv Portman, asked two weeks ago that the Cooke-King plan, on the shelf all year, be presented to the board in a work session this month.

On Monday, Portman made an impassioned argument in favor of at least discussing the plan in coming weeks—and scheduling a public hearing—while there's still time to consider whether to place the sales-tax increase on the ballot this fall. Portman's two fellow Democrats, Betty Lou Ward and James West, agreed, saying Wake's voters have a right to decide on the plan—and the tax.

They were outvoted by the four Republican members, however. None of the Republicans said anything until Coble, after the 4-3 vote, delivered a single-word epitaph: "Fails."

Coble's word was the last, dispiriting one in a meeting that began five hours earlier and was dominated by dozens of citizens who spoke during the public comment period, pleading with or demanding that the commissioners allow the 1/2-cent tax to go to referendum.

By the time the commissioners voted, after first considering a landfill permit and other routine business, most of the citizens were gone.

"The Wake transit plan has been on the table since last November," the Capital Area Friends of Transit, a citizens group, complained in a statement the next day, "yet the board majority has blatantly stalled it, refusing to put this to a vote or referendum of the people."

Meanwhile, with transit planning at a standstill in Wake, the TTA has started to unload some of the properties in Raleigh's Warehouse District it purchased a decade ago, intending to use them as part of a downtown railroad station.

The warehouse properties TTA is selling comprise a full block on the southwest corner of West Street and West Morgan Street. The Raleigh planning and economic development department included these properties when it put together, in 2010, a visionary Union Station plan calling for a major multimodal rail-transit, bus, retail and commercial hub a few blocks west of Fayetteville Street and the State Capitol.

The TTA won't make much money on the sale—75 percent of the approximately $2 million must be returned to the state or to Washington.

TTA is retaining ownership of the adjoining block of buildings on the southwest side of West Street and West Hargett Street. Together with the Viaduct Building, which sits back from West Street near the corner of West Martin Street and is envisioned (if federal and state funding comes through) as the new Amtrak station, this now becomes the core of a potential Union Station site.

The decision to sell the properties near West Morgan Street went unnoticed in February when the TTA board, with little comment, accepted an offer from a developer whose intentions were treated as "confidential."

The sale came to light this month when Citrix, a Florida-based technology firm with a subsidiary in Raleigh, announced that it intends to expand its operations here—with the aid of job-creation subsidies from the state and city—and is looking for new office space downtown.

Citrix, according to numerous sources who asked not to be named, is working with the developer Crown Companies, based in Dobson, which has ties to Cherokee Investment Partners in Raleigh. Under their contract with TTA, the buyers have until next month to finalize or withdraw from the deal.

If the sale goes through, Raleigh's Union Station vision would thus shrink by a minimum of one-third, down from approximately three city blocks to two, unless the buyers voluntarily incorporate their properties into a larger Union Station scheme.

Of critical importance, the sale could have the effect of stranding a planned light-rail station stop up on West Morgan Street, putting a privately owned block of buildings between the light-rail platform and the rest of Union Station, where the Amtrak station, a local commuter-rail platform and a bus terminal are supposed to be located.

In the Union Station scheme, everything was supposed to be connected via an indoor, multi-level concourse, lined with stores and restaurants and equipped with escalators."It is puzzling," Raleigh City Councilor Russ Stephenson says, "that the TTA would sell buildings as surplus when they're right at the front door of their own light-rail stop—buildings that the city thought were part of a coordinated plan for development that apparently wasn't that coordinated."

Stephenson, the deputy mayor and chair of the council's comprehensive plan committee, didn't know the TTA sale was in the works until two weeks ago, when he heard about it from a Wake County official. Some other council members were also kept in the dark.

Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin, who represents Raleigh on the TTA board and made the motion to approve the deal, did know of the sale. She says she informed some city officials, but citing the requirement that the deal remains confidential, she declined to answer specific questions about what she said or to whom.

Behind the scenes, many Raleigh officials seemed to be caught off guard by word of the sale when the Indy reported on it and Citrix's interest in the properties a week ago. Some, speaking privately, wondered why the TTA didn't give Raleigh a right of first refusal or try to include the city in a public-private partnership.

In response, TTA officials asked—also on background—why Raleigh never adopted, in all the years the buildings were in public ownership, any zoning rules to require that the targeted Union Station blocks would always remain accessible to bus and rail passengers.

City Councilor Thomas Crowder, who's tried for years to get the council moving on rules for transit-oriented districts, calls the failure to adopt appropriate zoning around the West Morgan Street station "a major mistake."

The sale of the TTA properties, if it goes through, underscores how far in the future a light-rail transit system is for the Raleigh-Cary side of the Triangle.

If and when the Wake County voters do approve the 1/2-cent sales tax, most of the money it raises would be spent initially on doubling bus services in the county, with money distributed to all 12 municipalities.

Rail service, if any were to materialize in the first decade, would be limited to one commuter-rail line connecting downtown Durham via Cary and RTP to downtown Raleigh, continuing to Garner. The service would be "Amtrak-like" except more frequent; and it wouldn't go to Charlotte or Washington, D.C. Stations would be at least three miles apart, with the goal to accommodate commuters to Raleigh, Durham and RTP.

Not until about 15–20 years after the 1/2-cent tax starts, Stephenson says, would a light-rail or streetcar system even be possible, with more frequent station stops—the kind that could spark dense, mixed-use developments where people live and work and don't own cars or seldom drive them.

That's the dream of the Raleigh UDO. But while the Wake Board of Commissioners remains in Republican hands, it's only a dream.

And by 2030, if light-rail is viable in Raleigh, it may or may not go down West Morgan Street.

A decade ago, the TTA bought the buildings in the warehouse district with federal and state funding as part of a light-rail plan that appeared headed for full federal funding by 2006. As proposed, a light-rail line or two would have been built now.

Instead, the TTA withdrew the plan in 2006 when the Bush administration's Federal Transit Administration signaled that it would be rejected.

Six years later, with the Wake commissioners refusing to consider the new transit plans put together since then, the TTA was forced to decide: Should it continue to own vacant buildings in a strategic part of Raleigh, maybe for another decade or more? Or should it sell them to a developer who'll get something going in them—something that, as TTA General Counsel Wib Gulley, the former Durham mayor, predicts, "will be a good thing and help our partners" to get transit of some sort started soon in Wake?

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