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Regional transit moves ahead--to square one

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So now, we begin again. Six months after the TTA rail project fell, was postponed, or got put in cold storage with Ted Williams' brain, the effort to plan a future for the Triangle region that includes rapid transit and sidesteps the roadway-gridlock alternative is finally at hand. Good luck to it.

That it took six months, when it should've taken two, tells a lot about the mess we're in and what it's going to take to get us past the political sprawl that, along with the stick-built kind, is at the heart of our problems. The Triangle, see, while we might look like one red-hot region to the outside world, is not one political jurisdiction but three, or six, or a dozen, depending on whether Chatham County and Johnston County count; both are booming. And even for transportation planning purposes, we are not a single "metro" area but two, with the CAMPO (Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization) to the east and the DCHC (the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro MPO) to the west. Two at war with each other, apparently.

When the rail project hit the wall, it was quickly agreed that the two MPOs, federally charted and funded, should join with TTA to plan for a transit re-launch. Quickly agreed, that is, by everybody but the elected officials who sit on the CAMPO and DCHC boards. They proceeded to spend four months wrangling over how many Raleigh seats, Durham seats, Orange County and Paris of the Piedmont seats there oughta be on the new "transit blueprint committee."

Should it be 12 CAMPO-12 DCHC? But the CAMPO region has more people. How about 14 CAMPO-11 DCDC? Deal. Except CAMPO then appointed 17. Or was it 19? I've lost track. As of this time, there are 36 members total, as I understand it, including some who are "joint" appointees.

The result: The hoped-for launch of the blueprint committee in December will happen instead in April.

Better late than—but it's already later than you think.

Everyone has a take on what sunk the rail project. David King's is—and this is with 20-20 hindsight—that the project was too ambitious and expensive given that, when the Bush Administration came in, public transit funding was going o-u-t. "Hindsight better be more acute than foresight, or else we're not learning anything," he quips.

King retired a year ago as the long-time deputy secretary of the N.C. Department of Transportation—he was the career guy who did the railroad stuff while the pols played with their road money—and he stepped in as "interim" TTA general manager when John Claflin got the ax last fall. But don't call him interim. He'll stay if he thinks progress is possible. And last week, when we talked, he did.

Since he took the job, he says, he's been moving around, talking to local elected officials in our many, many jurisdictions, and to business folk, too. He expected to find many rejoicing at the TTA's comeuppance. No such thing. With the single exception of Wake County Commissioner Paul Coble, who told him he'd bury the TTA if he could, they all realize that the region can't grow without transit, even if they doubted the wisdom of "the TTA project."

Which was the project's other problem, in King's view. It was so ambitious, and thus took so long to push through the federal funding hoops, that it was easy for local officialdom to forget that it was their project, and the TTA their creation (or their predecessors'.)

Somehow, as the TTA put its head down and concentrated on the engineering of the thing, local politicians and the business community simply walked away, and the TTA's leadership never noticed.

OK, that's a little harsh, and I think they did notice, but didn't know what to do about our sprawl-loving, developer-dominated politics. Whatever. We begin again, with the sure knowledge that, unless we want to stop growing—and one thing you learn in business is, if you're not growing, you're dying—the Triangle's current population of 1.1 million will be 2 million in 30 years or less.

That's another 900,000 kiddies and their parents driving on I-40, I-440 and the rest, the cost of which would make the TTA rail's price tag of $800 million look like a steal, King said, if you could even add that many roads lanes "in an already built environment"—but fortunately, you can't.

Which leads back to the blueprint committee. Its job: Study all the potential transit corridors in the region and choose the one, two, three or four most promising in terms of population density, jobs and potential for a rail car, express bus or hybrid of the two. (Hybrid? They makes buses these days that run on wheels but look like trains and can operate in a rail corridor and on a city street.)

The rail corridor's still a candidate. But maybe, instead of start-up service from Raleigh-to-Durham, the cars could start in Raleigh or in Durham and, instead of frequent, daylong trains on their own set of tracks, they could run—at the start-on the freight lines' tracks, with less-frequent service and the freight lines, Norfolk Southern and CSX, paid to run them.

The main challenge for the committee, King says, is to think regionally, not parochially, and while imagining a fully developed regional transit system, come together on a plan to get it started somewhere specific and soon.

Soon? That means five years from now.

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