When the head of the Federal Transit Administration visited the Triangle two weeks ago, his purpose was to talk up the region's prospects for federally funded commuter-rail and light-rail transportation.
Peter Rogoff, a congressional staffer before being named FTA administrator by President Barack Obama, was well aware of the region's unhappy past regarding public transportation. Rogoff said he remembered kicking around that very subject with Terry Sanford in a Senate committee. How long ago was that? Sanford lost his U.S. Senate seat in 1992.
Fourteen years later, in 2006, the Triangle Transit Authority sought final approval from the FTA for its first regional rail project. It was rejected, even though the TTA had been funded by the agency through the years for planning, engineering, land acquisition—everything but actual construction. But that was then, Rogoff said, under a Bush administration that looked for reasons not to support transit. Now, as Rogoff joined local officials for a bus tour of the region's new rail-transit plans, he said the FTA's standards have changed in a way that favors the Triangle.
"It's time," Rogoff told them.
This was what the Triangle's transit advocates wanted to hear as they attempt to convince Orange and Wake counties to put a half-cent sales tax for transit on the ballot as a referendum in November. Durham County voters approved the half-cent tax last year, but county leaders promised it wouldn't be collected until at least one of the other two counties also approves it.
Collection of the transit tax is critical to the Triangle's eligibility to re-enter the FTA's New Starts funding process and apply for projects that, if approved, would require between six and 15 years to complete (see sidebar at right). Wake County's light-rail project has a shorter time estimate than the one in Durham-Orange because land in Wake County was acquired by the TTA for the route prior to 2006.
Still, Rogoff's upbeat message about the Obama administration's "Blueprint for an America Built to Last," with robust funding for transit and other public works projects and a streamlined approval process, contrasted with doubtful assessments from Orange and Wake officials about whether the transit tax will reach the ballot in 2012.
If not, the earliest it could be voted on in either county (because of the terms of the enabling state legislation) is the November 2013 general election or the 2014 primary election.
Wake County's reluctance, under a Republican-majority board of county commissioners, was nothing new. But pro-transit officials were still smarting from Commission Chair Paul Coble's remark a few days earlier that all they have is "a concept," not a plan worthy of being voted on.
Coble, a candidate for the Republican nomination in the newly configured, GOP-friendly 13th Congressional District, is running against two other right-wing candidates in the May 8 primary. Likewise, his fellow Republican Commissioner Tony Gurley is running for lieutenant governor in the primary and trying to burnish his conservative credentials.
Among the four Republican commissioners, only Joe Bryan is so far thought of as a possible Yes vote on putting the half-cent tax on the ballot this year. Bryan didn't ride the bus with Rogoff, but he did attend a press event midway through at N.C. State University, where he was noncommittal. "All options are on the table," Bryan said. Coble, Gurley and Commissioner Phil Matthews were conspicuous by their absence.
Bryan's support would be sufficient to put the measure forward if the three Democratic commissioners join him, as expected. But he'd have to break with his party unless the other Republicans change their tune after the primary and agree to let the voters have their say.
Orange County's reticence, on the other hand, was considered a surprise given its progressive politics and the fact that Chapel Hill and Carrboro, which together have more than half of the county's population, are strongly pro-transit.
But county staffers and some county commissioners have long been irritated by the fact that the county collects relatively little in the way of sales taxes due to the presence of Southpoint and other major shopping malls over the Durham County line. Transit that delivers more sales-tax money to Durham isn't what they have in mind.
Thus in recent weeks county officials tried to reopen the subject of where the Orange-Durham light-rail corridor should be. As planned for more than a decade, it's slated to run from UNC-Chapel Hill along N.C. Highway 54 to the Meadowmont development before taking one of two routes (through Meadowmont or around it) into Durham County, where a huge mixed-used development of housing, stores and a parking deck called Leigh Village is on the horizon for future development of what is now virgin farmland.
The 54-Meadowmont route won't do much for rural northern Orange County, but it will some day deliver people who live or work in southern Orange County to Leigh Village—along with their sales taxes.
So County Manager Frank Clifton and Planning Director Craig Benedict suggested that the more northerly 15-501 corridor be studied as an alternative to the 54-Meadowmont alignment. Actually, both routes were subjected to "a massive study" in the '90s, Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton reminded them, and the Route 54 alignment was found to have much greater development and transit potential. "They're acting like a bunch of cowboys," Chilton said, "trying to second-guess 15 years of planning."
Chilton was breathing easier Monday after the Orange Commissioners voted 5–2 to endorse the 54-Meadowmont alignment as the "locally preferred alternative"—a key step in moving it toward eligibility for federal funding under the New Starts program. Chilton said he's cautiously optimistic that, with the 15-501 option squelched, the half-cent transit tax will make it to the ballot this fall.
Similarly, Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt pledged Monday in his State of the Town Address to go all out for the tax. "I expect Chapel Hill to be Orange County's leader in ensuring passing it in 2012," Kleinschmidt declared.
A 2012 vote is far from a done deal, though.
Bo Glenn, a Durham resident and spokesman for the volunteer Durham-Orange Friends of Transit organization, says the 54-Meadowmont route is ripe for "the kind of development we need ... high-density, very walkable, retail and residential mixed-use" on land that can be shaped by TTA and a single master developer to be transit-oriented. By contrast, he said, 15-501 is built-out "in a car-oriented way" that makes rail transit there virtually impossible.
But Glenn wondered, as others have, whether the 15-501 idea is Orange County's opening volley in an effort to negotiate with Durham on the allocation of costs (their respective transit-tax revenues) for the light-rail service or revenue-sharing from resulting development.
Alice Gordon, an Orange County commissioner for 22 years, is an ardent transit supporter who backed the 54-Meadowmont alignment. But she does think that 15-501 merits study, she said, not as a light-rail corridor but for possible Bus Rapid Transit service or bus circulators to connect the roadway's many but disparate retail stores. Chapel Hill and Carrboro would need to be partners in that effort, she added.
Paying for light-rail and BRT may require some negotiations with Durham, Gordon conceded. "There are a lot of possibilities," she said. "We have a lot to talk through before it gets on the ballot."
Nonetheless, Gordon added, she's optimistic the commissioners "and our partners" will achieve consensus by April or May, leaving the voters enough time to study the plan and vote on it in November. "It's a little too soon to say, but I'm cautiously optimistic."