Raleigh Responds to Transit Panel

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A transit panel hired by Wake County doesn’t seem to see the big picture, Raleigh officials said recently.

A three-person panel hired by Wake County Commissioners spoke last week about the Wake County Transit Plan. While they said the plan has some merit, all said that the area was too small for rail and suggested enhancing bus service.

Raleigh staff and officials this week said the need for a plan is necessary — despite current metrics.

The panelists were commissioned after Wake Commissioner Paul Coble called for an independent review of the plan, to which he has long objected.

While panelists Steve Polzin, Sam Staley and Cal Marsella said they worked independently, all three came to the same general conclusions, which were presented at a public meeting Tuesday.

Polzin, Staley and Marsella said Wake County doesn’t have the congestion or current bus ridership to warrant an investment in rail. But, they said there is plenty of room for improvement in the current bus system that could be enhanced.

As ridership increases, new bus projects should be built with future rail in mind, they said.

Too Small for Rail
“You don’t have a transportation crisis,” said Polzin. “You have a transit opportunity.”

Polzin said that the current system is working well and that the region has some of the lowest congestion rates and commute times in the country.

“I can assure you that the vast majority of metro areas would die to have your roadway capacity metrics and congestion metrics and performance metrics,” he said.

Staley discussed layering transit systems and alternatives as the area grows. While he acknowledged the rapid growth in the Triangle, Staley said that the region hasn’t reached the density that makes it a large urban area.

“A lot of people are thinking large. You’re not there yet,” he said.

“In the grand scheme of things, the Raleigh-Durham metro area is still a medium-sized urban area,” Staley said. “You’re still very much in the beginning stages of growth.”

Outgoing Wake County Manager David Cooke said that the panelists were right to compare the region to other areas, but those numbers are all relative.

“If you’re sitting in traffic, then it’s relevant,” he said. “People aren’t going to necessarily compare it to Atlanta.”

Cooke said that crafters of the current plan looked at the area’s demographics, where it’s been, where it’s going and what people here think is important. He said the panel isn’t wrong in its assessment, but it offers another perspective.

Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane reiterated that transit needs to be part of the plan if the area continues to grow as it is expected.

“We know what this area is going to be population-wise and business-wise in 2030,” she said. “That’s what we’re planning for.”

Rush hour commuter rail lines are part of the transit plan, in addition to expanded bus service.

Commuter rail lines are part of the transit plan, but are not scheduled to be implemented for a few years.

Transit has always been part of the city’s 2030 Comprehensive Plan, which guides the future growth of the city. Some downtown companies such as Citrix and Red Hat are banking on enhanced transit coming to the area.

McFarlane said that transit offers more choices to future residents.

“If you don’t plan for the future then your choices are limited,” she said. “You’re boxed in by other people’s choices.”

Their plan is to get in front of the growth.

Raleigh’s Transportation Planning Manager Eric Lamb said that there was a lot of pragmatism in Tuesday’s discussion, but thinks the discussion lacked vision.

He said that the city recognizes the area is going to be a high-growth community, so planning for those services now and taking those first steps requires vision.

Lamb agreed with the panel’s suggestion to take incremental steps, such as protecting the right-of-way needed to eventually lay down rail.

“That requires you have a plan that you know exactly where these things are going to go,” said Lamb. “You have to develop the system plan for what you want to accomplish.”

On Board with Buses
While there was some disagreement as to whether the Triangle had the need for rail, there was general consensus on a need to enhance the bus system.

“I thought they had a good point,” Cooke said. “You have to build your ridership over time.”

Both Capital Area Transit and Triangle Transit have seen an increase in ridership, but panelists said more growth is needed before rail should be considered.

McFarlane said that the one thing everyone agrees with is the need to expand and enhance the current bus system — something the transit plan already addresses.

bus station 7

Karen Tam / Raleigh Public Record

“You have to have to have a strong bus system to support future expansion of transit,” said McFarlane. “That’s something that we’ve heard everywhere.”

Funding, however, remains an issue.

If approved by voters, the bulk of the half-cent sales tax increase associated with the current plan would primarily be used to fund expanded bus service throughout the county. The remainder would fund a commuter rail system.

Wake County Commissioners have yet to put the sales tax referendum on the ballot. Durham and Orange counties have both approved the increase, which will fund their own bus systems.

“The fact of the matter is, we’re still going to need the revenues to effectively implement the bus service,” Lamb said. “We are still going to need to have this conversation about additional revenue sources to fund better transit.”

Continued Discussion Unclear
The panel suggested county officials go back and look at the numbers to make sure they don’t have unrealistic expectations of cost and future ridership.

Those involved in the plan want to keep the conversation about transit on the table.

Despite calls from the public and other municipalities to hold a public hearing, this was the first public discussion on transit county officials have had since the plan was released two years ago.

Commissioners have made no public announcement as to when they plan to continue the discussion or make any decisions.

Raleigh Transit Administrator Dave Eatman said that many of Capital Area Transit’s existing plans already meet many of the objectives that were discussed by the panel.

“I think we’re ready to go no matter what happens in the future,” he said.

4 thoughts on “Raleigh Responds to Transit Panel

  1. Has anyone questioned the fact that these ‘experts’ brought in namely by Paul Coble and Tony Gurley, the dynamic “NO” duo. Coble continues his ‘visionary’ style by saying ‘no’ to everything remotely progressive. At least one of these experts represents a ‘think tank’ that has very questionable financial support (Koch Brothers) which should raise a flag as to their credibility. Does anyone really think that Coble and Gurley would have invited any who supports mass transit to this ‘presentation’? they’ve been naysayers to rail forever.

    Beyond these glaring questionable ‘expertise’ of this panel, all the panelists (as usual) completely ignore the financial impact of economic development created by rail, meaning the development that occurs around rail stops. The tax value created around these stops MUST be factored into the ‘value’ of rail. No other transit option creates this sort of impact. All these naysayers do is try to focus on ‘ticket cost compared to the cost of rail’. Nobody in their right mind has ever tried to argue that ticket costs alone ‘pays’ for rail outside maybe New York City. I can assure you that that little cho0-choo in charlotte (similar size metro) does not pay for itself outright.

    Time to end the tenure of these vision-less ‘leaders’ like Paul Coble once and for all.

  2. The panelists were partisans doings a hatchet job for the politicians that put on the anti-progress dog and pony show.

  3. I am not a Republican, but I thank the commissioners for having enough common sense to question this awful transit plan.

    The projected operating subsidy if the train’s start rolling in 2020 is $17.08 per ride… that’s a $34.16 taxpayer-subsidy on each person’s round-trip commute, every day. By 2040, as ridership increases, the taxpayer subsidy will still be $8.22 per ride, a $16.44 subsidy to each person’s round-trip commute. And yes, these figures are adjusted for inflation.

    Public transportation has many benefits to society that justify a taxpayer subsidy – it provides reliable transportation to everyone, reduces congestion and pollution, increases quality-of-life, etc. – however, a subsidy of these amounts far outweighs its benefits.

    Further, the above amounts only include an operating subsidy. First, commuter rail will cost $650 million to build. (You could save millions by buying each future rider a $200,000 house in walking distance to their work!)

    Commuter rail does not have strong benefits in increasing dense development or encouraging a more sustainable lifestyle. Commuter rail has practically no service outside of rush-hour, meaning riders will still be using their cars for all other trips (only 1/3 of the average person’s trips are for work). The commuter rail line is 37 miles long, yet takes just 52 minutes… this encourages urban sprawl by making further distances easier to travel. Urban sprawl leads to high infrastructure costs and low property values (meaning low tax revenues), exactly what a good transit plan would discourage, not encourage.

    Wake County is in need of better public transportation. The current plan to increase bus service is insufficient. One option would be to use the savings from rail for dramatically better bus service, which would serve far more people at much lower costs. Another option would be to build a short light-rail line. Light-rail has consistently proven to attract more money in surrounding private development then it costs to build, and requires an operating subsidy even lower than buses. A final option would be to request a 0.25% sales tax increase rather than a 0.50% increase, and implement only modest – but noticeable – bus improvements. Any of these options would be much better for Wake County’s future then the current plan.

  4. Jeff,

    Light rail in Charlotte cost $450 million to build. Wake’s commuter will cost $650 million (if not another 50% for going over-budget).

    With 15 stations over 9.6 miles, light-rail is built to support dense development… and it paid off with nearly $2 billion in private development (which has lower infrastructure costs and higher property values.) Commuter rail would have 13 stations over 37 miles, it’s built to support sprawl, and will result in little private development.

    Further, Charlotte’s light rail runs 7 days/week 5-1am, with a 10 minute frequency during rush-hour, and 15-20 minutes other times. This encourages 16,000 people/day to use public transportation. Commuter rail in Wake County would have a 30 minute frequency during rush-hour, and a few isolated trips during other times. This is expected to encourage about 2000 people/day to ride the train to work, and drive in all other situations.

    The expected taxpayer subsidy per-trip of commuter-rail is $17.08 (after it’s first year). The taxpayer subsidy per-trip of light-rail in Charlotte was $1.37 (after it’s first year).

    Commuter rail was also planned in Mecklenburgh County, but Mayor Foxx postponed the plans, and instead prioritized a trolley and light-rail extension. Wake County needs such leadership, not this bad.