So is the TTA rail project dead?
That's the question everyone's fixating on, and it's the wrong question. The right one is, does the project make sense? Because if it does--and since all the heavy lifting on it has already been done--it's not going to die, and it won't even be crippled, though it's apparently going to be on the disabled list for awhile.
And the answer is: The project makes great sense. For Durham. And for Chapel Hill. And eventually--presumably--it will make sense for Raleigh. But sadly, it doesn't right now.
I say this for two reasons, the first logistical, the second political.
On the logistics, the proposed rail line--following the existing freight and Amtrak corridors--goes right through downtown Durham. With a little more work, it can run out to Duke and then, via a still-to-be-chosen corridor near U.S. 15-501, south to Chapel Hill and the UNC-CH campus(es).
On the other hand, the rail line only skirts downtown Raleigh, which never had much rail-dependent industry to start with. And downtown bus service in Raleigh is sketchy in the extreme--with no promise of quick improvement. So if rail riders disembarked five or six blocks from their destination, they'd have to be prepared to wait for a connection. Or else hoof it.
Or else Raleigh would really have to rise to the challenge.
As to the politics, however, it's clear that transit--bus and rail--enjoys broad support in Durham and in Chapel Hill. But while Raleigh is officially supporting the TTA, it is actually indifferent to it--except for the hostile, conservative faction led by state Rep. Russell Capps that by default now dominates the airwaves.
So, here's my suggestion. While I'd like to see the TTA rail project go ahead as planned, if it can't--if the politics preclude it for now--then Durham and Chapel Hill should start without Raleigh. Leave Raleigh out, that is, until Raleigh's ready to get in.
Leave Raleigh out? I should say, if Durham and Chapel Hill did try to go ahead on their own, my hope is that Raleigh would scream bloody murder and insist that any regional transit system must include the region's biggest city, not to mention the state capital.
Still, do you hear any screaming now, as Dole & Burr pronounce the only transit system on the region's horizons "not likely"? Durham, junior partner in the TTA's "phase 1" Raleigh-to-Durham scheme, doesn't have the clout to be heard even if it were screaming, which it isn't. Chapel Hill, so far consigned to "phase 2" TTA status by the bigger boys to the east, can only shrug ... and add more buses.
No, the effective screaming, if there's to be any, will have to come from Raleigh. And judging by the silence from Raleigh City Hall thus far, the impending decision to shelve the rail project will be taken as "too bad, very disappointing, something we'll have to look into ... and what's next on the agenda?"
As I understand it from TTA officials, the ridership model for the Raleigh-to-Durham line just doesn't forecast a lot of riders even 25 years out. The flaws in the model, and the furious effort to correct them, have been covered in excruciating detail both here and in the daily press, to the TTA's great embarrassment. Suffice it to say here, however, that even if it were flawless, the model is only allowed to predict the ridership that would result from the region continuing to grow in the same way it's grown in the past.
Or, as one TTA leader put it privately, "the FTA"--the Federal Transportation Administration in Washington--"severely limits pipe-dreaming" when it comes to land-use and transit.
Which is a body blow to the TTA rail project, at least if it includes Raleigh. Why? Because the whole point of the project, from its advocates' standpoint anyway, is to change the way the region (and especially Raleigh) has been growing by introducing high-density, mixed-used development, in a transit-supported corridor, as an alternative to continued, unabated sprawl.
I certainly count myself as an advocate. When I moved to North Carolina from New Jersey almost 20 years ago, I left behind a state that was struggling to overcome its history of sprawl and the consequent traffic jams and to graft a transit system onto its far-flung suburbs. A just-enacted Growth Management Act of the legislature was aimed at getting towns to plan for transit and also for the preservation of dwindling farmland and open space.
The Triangle back then was a place of no density, and the driving was easy. It took no great powers of observation, though, to see that unless the pattern of sprawl development was broken, New Jersey-style traffic jams would follow, as they have.
Thus, the region's planners even then were eyeing the rail corridor from Raleigh to Durham and saying that's where the spine of our future transit system should go. The corridor went past RTP. It went right through Cary ... to the Fairgrounds ... and through NCSU. The original, 16-station TTA plan, since pared back, ran around the State Capitol complex and out to North Raleigh at one end; at the other, it extended west to Duke Hospital.
Two decades later, the TTA has engineered that transit system, acquired the land for most of it, planned the first 12 station stops, and is ready to order the rail cars. It's done its job, and for the most part done it with federal money. (The local financing--a 5 percent tax on rental cars and $5 added to car registration fees--is slight.)
But the politicians in Raleigh haven't done their job.
Look around the station sites. Are they surrounded by tall office buildings, condominiums and stores? Oh, sure, there's an office here, a condo there. But for the most part, Raleigh's chosen to wait for the stations to change its development pattern, rather than change its development pattern to foster the stations.
The pipe-dream is that once the stations are in and the trains are running, the "TODs"--transit-oriented developments--will follow, supplying the riders. I think that's true, actually.
But the FTA, which has plenty of applications for its very limited funds from other cities where the riders already exist, hears us talking TODs ... but all it sees is sprawl.
Time to ante up
The FTA sees sprawl, and it also sees a region unwilling to tax itself for a fair share of its own transit costs. Other applicants for the federal dough are willing to put in 50 percent of the money themselves, as Charlotte did, thanks to a half-cent sales tax for transit approved by voters there. The Triangle can only offer 40 percent, and most of that (25 percent) is state money guaranteed by the Easley administration.
Would Raleigh tax itself for transit? When you stop laughing, ask yourself if Durham and Chapel Hill would. Then think about the transit system they could have if they do:
Transit trains from UNC and downtown Chapel Hill up to Duke and Durham and down to RTP.
BRTs (Bus Rapid Transit) in dedicated lanes, or transit trains in a new corridor, along I-40 from RTP to Chapel Hill, completing the loop.
Future spurs could run, via existing rail corridors, from Durham to Apex, Durham to Hillsborough, and for that matter Durham to Cary and West Raleigh whenever they're ready.
So who needs Raleigh?
Building the last part of the line from NCSU to downtown Raleigh and the State Capitol is very expensive, mainly because of criss-crossing freight trains that the TTA must either go over or under. And why bother? Does Raleigh really want it? Maybe it's time to find out.
And by the way, why is the Raleigh Planning Commission still controlled by Republicans (6-5) ... and by developers ... and by sprawl? Maybe because the 6-2 Democratic City Council majority yesterday filled two PC vacancies with a Democrat, the Rev. Paul Anderson, and a Republican developer, Chuck Walker.
Anderson, former head of the city's Human Relations Commission, almost won a council seat himself in the October elections.
Walker's already had six years on the PC and was thus term-limited two years ago. He was the least-favorite PC member of neighborhood groups because of his outspoken preference for the opinions of his fellow developers. Now he's back.
But, Walker was the pick of three council Democrats (James West, Joyce Kekas and Jessie Taliaferro) plus Republicans Philip Isley and Tommy Craven. They thus outvoted Mayor Charles Meeker and Councilors Thomas Crowder and Russ Stephenson, who wanted a second Democrat named. All eight Council members backed Anderson.