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Mass transit funding: A tin cup for steel rails

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Passengers board a LYNX train, Charlotte's first light-rail line, which opened at the end of 2007. - PHOTO BY DARITTO7117, PUBLIC DOMAIN
  • Photo by Daritto7117, public domain
  • Passengers board a LYNX train, Charlotte's first light-rail line, which opened at the end of 2007.

The massive economic stimulus package now being fashioned in Washington is expected to include billions of dollars for mass transit and intercity rail projects. But because of decisions made during the Bush administration, the Triangle stands to receive little or none of it, the region's transportation leaders say.

Yet, these same leaders are gearing up for a major local transit push over the coming year, based on the plan adopted in May by the region's Special Transit Advisory Commission (STAC). Their goal is to put the question of a dedicated half-cent sales tax for transit before the voters in Wake, Durham and Orange counties in the spring of 2010.

Before that can happen, regional leaders need legislation from the new General Assembly, authorizing the counties to enact a transit tax. Only Mecklenburg County has such authorization. Its half-cent sales tax, approved by voters there in 1998 and again in 2007, helped to finance extensive additions to local bus service and construction of Charlotte's first light-rail line, which opened at the end of 2007.

In recent weeks, Gov. Bev Perdue has repeated her support for light rail in the state's urban areas. And in previewing the 2009 Emerging Issues Forum Feb. 9-10 in Raleigh on the subject of "Building the Good Growth State," former Gov. Jim Hunt told reporters he'd like to see a referendum on transit in the Triangle as soon as possible.

State Reps. Deborah Ross and Jennifer Weiss, both D-Wake, say transit is on the top of their legislative lists for 2009, with bipartisan support coming from Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, who sponsored a half-cent sales tax for transit bill in the last legislative session and is expected to submit it again in the new one, which begins later this month.

Also, city officials in Raleigh are reviewing a draft comprehensive plan that, as Planning Director Mitch Silver describes it, emphasizes herding future development into "multi-modal transit" corridors, principally including the trunk commuter-rail line endorsed by the STAC. "We based our whole land-use plan on their model," Silver said last week at one of a series of public workshops his department is conducting.

The Triangle's sprawling development patterns, and an absence of a substantial funding stream for transit, help explain why a regional transit system that was first discussed in the '80s—with a start-up target in the '90s—now might take shape in the '10s, starting with improved bus services, and penciling in light-rail transit for 2019.

Triangle Transit's first board meeting of 2009 coincided with the unveiling in Washington of the House Appropriations Committee's $850 billion economic recovery package, which included a proposed $10 billion for mass transit. But David King, Triangle Transit's general manager, doubted his agency would qualify for any of the rail funding and likely will receive only "single-digit millions" for new buses and bus shelters from any stimulus package that eventually emerges.

The reason, King said, is that Triangle Transit's rail planning came to a screeching halt two and a half years ago when the Bush administration signaled that the then-proposed Durham-to-Raleigh commuter line would not be approved for final design and construction funding. After a decade in the federal pipeline, Triangle Transit withdrew the project rather than suffer a fatal rejection.

Consequently, King said, there's a long list of New Starts rail projects across the country that previously were behind the Triangle in the federal queue but have since, with continued funds for planning, moved up the list. A bill summary released by the Appropriations Committee said there are $2.4 billion worth of such "pre-approved" new-rail projects on the Federal Transportation Authority's list and $15.5 billion in "ready-to-go" rail and bus maintenance and improvement projects; the bill contains $1 billion and $6 billion, respectively, in these two categories.

"The potential exists to get back in the [New Starts] program," King added however, especially with the much more transit-friendly Obama administration taking over in D.C., as well as Perdue's support in Raleigh.

If there's a silver lining in his agency's setback, it's that an apparent policy change at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) in recent years may now make "light rail" possible in the Durham-to-Raleigh rail corridor instead of the bigger, heavier diesel-powered trains that Triangle Transit planned to deploy.

Light rail's advantages are numerous. For one, light rail is powered by overhead electric lines rather than diesel fuel, which means costs are more predictable and probably cheaper in the long run.

For another, light-rail cars can operate in the streets as well as in railbeds; diesel cars can't. Stopping times are quicker, meaning more stops per mile. And electric cars have more room for passengers.

The disadvantage: Triangle Transit must add the electric lines and power sub-stations to its designs and update its federally required environmental impact analysis to reflect the additions, tasks that will take another 18 to 24 months to complete, King said.

A decade ago, the FRA generally stopped light-rail transit in intercity freight corridors like the one from Durham to Raleigh where Triangle Transit wanted to operate, citing safety issues. Thus, Triangle Transit fixed on the diesel technology when it entered the New Starts program.

But while that diesel plan was hitting the wall, the FRA relaxed policy, allowing light-rail operations in numerous other freight corridors, including Charlotte's.

In November, the Triangle's two transportation planning agencies, the DCHC (Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro) and CAMPO (Capital Area) metropolitan planning organizations, voted in a joint meeting to pursue federal approval of a 56-mile long light-rail system if possible. It was, said Orange County Commissioner Alice Gordon, chair of the DCHC group at the time, "an historic meeting," marking the first time the two bodies had acted in concert.

Helping the Triangle's case, says Ed Johnson, CAMPO's executive director, is the fact that the freight-oriented FRA exercises primary jurisdiction over intercity transit, but service within a single city is generally governed by the commuter-oriented Federal Transit Administration.

This could matter because while the old commuter-rail plan was envisioned as coming online in a first phase, from Duke University in Durham to downtown Raleigh, the phasing of the proposed STAC plan is different: It calls for Wake County to put a 17-mile stretch of the light-rail system primarily in only Raleigh, from Cary/ West Raleigh through downtown and up to a northeast terminus near the Triangle Town Center and Interstate 540.

Meanwhile, King said, Orange County will choose between improving its existing bus services and putting a first light-rail segment on the ground in the U.S. 15-501 corridor through Meadowmont. That decision may depend on what Durham does first. Durham's in the middle, King said, and must decide whether to start its light-rail service toward Chapel Hill or Raleigh.

But the planned 15-501 rail line between Chapel Hill and Durham isn't in a freight corridor and was always envisioned as electric.

King noted that each county's planning is contingent on its voters' approval of a funding source. All could be accelerated, of course, if the Obama administration and Congress funnel additional money into the New Starts pipeline or future stimulus bills.

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