With Wake Tax Off the Table, City Transit Planners Look to Short-Term

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Editor’s Note: The original version of this post indicated Orange had already approved the tax while Durham voters will see it this fall.

Raleigh transportation planners are talking up a new short-term plan now that a half-cent sales tax to pay for public transportation is off the table for Wake County this year.

Planners have been making the rounds to community groups to talk up a revised plan that would bring big changes to the city’s bus system.

Members of the Wake County Commission rejected an idea to put a half-cent sales tax on the ballot this November. Orange County will vote on a similar tax this fall; Durham County voters approved the tax last year.

Transit planners aim to create a unified transit system across the Triangle with commuter rail and more bus service, paid for with the sales taxes in Wake, Durham and Orange counties.

Meanwhile, Raleigh transit planners now say they want to take a two-pronged approach to dealing with the city’s growing transportation needs without the additional income.

According to David Eatman, transit administrator with the city, the first goal is implementing a short-range transit plan and improving existing transit lines. The second is moving forward with a long-range plan, including commuter rail and someday light rail, the first of which would have been funded by the tax increase, if passed by taxpayers.

Eatman said that the short-range plan is a complement to the eventual long-range plan and can be implemented faster.

“No matter how much we spend on rail, the system really depends on buses to feed it and to provide circulation,” he said. “A train looks at a bus as its connection point and I look at pedestrian access as my bus transfer point.”

Phase one of the plan involves scheduling changes, such as compressing late-night and early-morning services to allow for 30-minute headways in high-traffic areas and adjusting holiday bus schedules. More than 800 bus stop signs will also be replaced.

CAT Transit Plans

Phase two focuses on adjusting routes and streamlining service. Eatman said that they are not cutting total transit time, but instead shuffling in an attempt to be as efficient as possible with existing resources.

“We’re probably going to be about six months behind in actual implementation,” Eatman said. “We thought we might be implementing this summer but since we’re going to be replacing all of our bus stop signs at the same time, we’re thinking about the new year – late calendar year 2012 or early 2013 before the implementation occurs.”

The changes and increases in service are along routes that will be serviced by the long-range transit system in the future. For example, with funding, a bus service from the outer edges of Johnston County will begin to develop the traffic pattern that would be serviced by light or commuter rail in the future.

The plan, Eatman said, “allows us to put services where services are needed, but also sets us up for a great first step as we move into the bigger plan.”

The timeframe estimate for the short-range plan is three to five years, allowing for flexibility in times where funding is short. Eatman said that phase one and two of the short-range plan will be budget-neutral, or operating with the same budget already allotted for transit. But starting possibly in fiscal year 2014 through 2016, extra funding would be needed.

Rail, Eatman said, “is certainly something we want to see in the future.”

“Obviously, it’s going to take time to get there, but I think it is a very reachable goal. And we’d love to see it, but certainly we’ve got to make that decision with a half-cent sales tax or some kind of funding before we can make those plans.”

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