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With light-rail on life support, a Wake County plan for mass transit: #buses

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In the month since I wrote about it, the rezoning of 616 Oberlin Road near Cameron Village was approved, touching off another round of handwringing about skimpy public transit in Raleigh.

City Councilor Randy Stagner, for example, warned against continuing to approve high-density apartment projects where the traffic is thick and bus service thin. "This has got to be addressed and soon," Stagner said, "or we will stop with development."

Stop development? Those were fighting words to Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin, who sees high-density projects as the trigger for better transit. "The solution is not to stop development," Baldwin shot back. "The solution is to invest in our infrastructure."

Baldwin said city staffers will have a 10-year transportation plan finished by May.

Well, maybe next May.

Forgive me if I'm a little jaded on this subject. For too many years, I've heard Raleigh officials talk a great game about managing growth and coordinating it with public transit, including the (now) quarter-century-old plan for light-rail service in the Triangle.

Meanwhile, the lion's share of Raleigh's high-density development has occurred, not where the light-rail line was supposed to go, but rather at Cameron Village, Crabtree Valley, North Hills, Triangle Town Center, Brier Creek—in other words, in and around the shopping malls that are synonymous with Raleigh's sprawl.

Consequently, the light-rail plan is dead in the water, no closer to completion today than 20 years ago—at least in Wake County. In Durham and Orange counties, voters have approved a half-cent sales tax for transit, and their portions of the light-rail plan are finally viable, if not imminent.

Which leads to my point: History aside, Raleigh's ability to move forward on transit is up against a seemingly immovable object in the form of the Republican majority on the Wake County Board of Commissioners. The Republicans refuse to let the half-cent sales tax go to referendum. Unless they yield, Raleigh's only alternative is to finance transit improvements with property taxes.

Can the commissioners be forced to yield? I think they can—next year.

Here's what I recommend. First, set the light-rail plan aside. A commuter-rail alternative has been developed; set it aside too. Our hashtag: #buses.

A whole lot of buses.

Next, take the official Wake County Transit Plan that the commissioners have successfully ignored for the past two years and rewrite it. Commissioner Paul Coble, the GOP majority's negative countenance, famously dismissed the document as a concept, not a plan.

I disagree. It is a plan. But it's not an exciting plan. #buses must be exciting.

What we need is a plan for bus service that is so compelling, so obviously on the money in meeting Raleigh's and Wake County's development needs, that the voters will demand a chance to vote on the half-cent sales tax. If denied, they'll take it out on the politicians who are stopping them.

All this will be aimed at the 2014 elections, for three reasons. One, 2013 in Wake County will be about schools. Two, it will take a year to write our #buses plan and sell it to the public. Three, all of the Republicans' seats will be on the ballot in 2014, which means that if they refuse to let the public vote, they'll be handing their Democratic opponents a club to beat them with.

So, tah-dah: What is #buses?

In short, it's a plan to run high-quality, high-frequency bus service between downtown Raleigh and Cameron Village, Crabtree Valley, North Hills and the WakeMed/ Wake County Social Services complex in Southeast Raleigh. With enough frequency—a bus every five to 10 minutes—and enough first-class bus stops at places with stores, restaurants and restrooms, our #buses plan can throw off the same level of redevelopment en route that a so-called fixed guideway (a light-rail or streetcar line) would.

Where possible, using dedicated bus lanes could help speed our #buses.

Yes, that's right. Though I continue to think that we should've limited high-density developments to the light-rail station locations, the fact is we didn't—and I bow to reality. Our dense developments are at the shopping centers. No way can we afford a light-rail line to all of them. But we can afford first-class bus service, especially if we postpone the rail spending.

The strength of the Wake County Transit Plan is that it offers express bus services between downtown Raleigh and the other 11 Wake municipalities. That should be attractive to suburban voters.

The weakness is inside Raleigh. Here the plan would add a few buses to many routes instead of offering really good service on a few major, and thus development-inducing, routes.

The truth is, people in Wake County enjoy going to North Hills, and they might like living in a condo or apartment on Wake Forest Road if a bus came every 10 minutes going to North Hills or, in the other direction, downtown.

#buses going to popular destinations would be, well, popular.

I haven't given up on the light-rail line, far from it. But it's controversial. And in the best case, it can't be in operation for at least a dozen years after Wake approves the half-cent tax; whereas #buses would hasten approval of the tax and be up and running quickly.

Also Raleigh could help to ignite the campaign for approval in 2014 by proposing a city bond issue in 2013, with matching funds for the bus routes and enough money to start turning dirt on one of them—the WakeMed route, say—by next spring. Council members are considering a 2013 transportation bond.

My old plan: Light-rail stations cause a demand for better bus connections. My new plan: #buses causes envy in Cary and West Raleigh and help get light-rail back on track.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Long live #buses."

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