It's another kickoff. They're teeing up the transit planning process in Wake County yet again, and I feel like Charlie Brown, ready to take a run at the football despite being fooled so many times before.
Yes, I'm putting aside my memories of 1993, when Triangle Transit said light-rail service was coming soon. I won't dwell on 2007, when the STAC—the Special Transit Advisory Commission—did its work and Orange and Durham counties moved ahead but Wake County balked. Or 2011, when Wake officials issued their own transit plan only to ignore it.
Wake was under Republican management then, but the 2014 elections put an end to them, and as of next week, a 7-0 Democratic majority will control the Wake Board of Commissioners. It's a pro-transit majority—hooray!—elected after pledging to put a half-cent sales tax for transit before the voters in Wake as soon as possible. Now the question is, a half-cent sales tax for what?
I confess, I'm a bit of a transit junkie. I may not have read every line of every plan, but I've studied many a map showing where the rail stations could go and the bus routes and the transit-oriented development districts.
The reason I care is that transit, done right, is a huge money saver for those who use it and an important air-quality protector for everyone.
The first is true because living and working on a transit route can mean that you don't have to own a car or, for couples, you may own one car but not two. Which means you're saving $7,000 or thereabouts every year. For working stiffs, that's real money.
Also, fewer cars idling in congested traffic means less air pollution. Plus, you're allowed to text and ride in a bus or rail car, or read.
At least we should have the choice.
That "done right" part is tricky, though. Transit works well only in densely populated areas. Thus it behooves local officials to see that high-density housing projects are built on routes that transit serves.
This principle is one that—I'll strike a positive note here—Raleigh leaders must apply with better aim, because the city is the urban core (with connections to Research Triangle Park, Cary and Garner) of what is otherwise a suburban and rural county with little transit potential.
In its defense, perhaps Raleigh didn't see the point while Republicans were running the county—but they aren't any more. Which is why it's time for Raleigh to buckle down and choose our transit corridors. No more messing around.
Choosing the corridors is the purpose of the Wake County Transit Investment Strategy process, which begins in December. Members of the Sierra Club were briefed last week. From their discussion, I put together some questions the "strategy" must answer.
Frequency? Or coverage? Wake is a big county, too big for a half-cent sales tax (about $50–$60 million a year) to provide high-quality transit to every corner. So there's a trade-off: If too many buses go far afield, high-frequency service in designated corridors can't be achieved. This is the point Jarrett Walker, the Portland, Oregon-based transit guru who's leading the strategy process, made when he visited Raleigh in May. High-frequency service is what attracts riders, Walker says. Without it, they get in their cars.
Will voters agree? Everyone in Wake gets a vote on the half-cent sales tax. Will enough voters see a benefit if service is focused in Raleigh?
Buses? Or rail? Or both. Buses get struck in traffic. Trains, if they're running on their own rails, don't. On the other hand, Raleigh's high-density developments (Crabtree Valley, North Hills, Cameron Village) aren't on rail corridors. Walker's agnostic. What matters, he says, isn't the mode. It's the frequency.
Lead? Or follow? The Raleigh-to-Durham railroad corridor is replete with locations ripe for very high-density development because, so far, they are large empty tracts a short ride from the center of Raleigh. (Or Durham.) Using the rail corridor as the "spine" for Wake transit—whether with light-rail stations, commuter-rail service or high-frequency buses—offers the best chance to spark transformative urban growth. But if transit follows what's on the ground already, it will trek instead to the three shopping centers I mentioned.
Which comes first? In time, an organic system will spawn many routes. But a half-cent sales tax won't pay for more than one or two good ones at the outset.
What about Durham? Orange and Durham counties are planning a light-rail line from Chapel Hill through the center of Durham. Wake leaders are leaning, if they do rail at all, to limited commuter-rail service to Cary and RTP. The problem is, light-rail and commuter-rail trains run on different tracks. Whether Wake and Durham connect is a big question.
Affordable to all? Working people would benefit by living in a transit corridor. Without housing subsidies, though, they'll be pushed out in favor of upscale apartments of the kind that dominate Triangle development.
These aren't new questions. But with Wake's population over 1 million and Raleigh closing in on 500,000, finally getting answers to them is imperative. Have you driven on Capital Boulevard lately?
This article appeared in print with the headline "The Devil's in the details."