City council talking transit, hoping for half-cent sales tax

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Raleigh City Council had a special session Friday to discuss plans for commuter and light rail to be completed by 2031. Plans for such a system, which would stretch from Raleigh to Durham, Chapel Hill and potentially into Johnston County, have been in the works for the past ten years.

The meeting also addressed a multi-modal transportation hub to be located at the corner of Cabarrus and Hargett streets, which, city Planning Director Mitchell Silver said, might have the potential to become “the new gateway to the south, because it has gives better access to the rest of the southeast than Richmond.” The multi-modal hub would be called Raleigh Union Station and provide access to the light rail, commuter rail, Amtrak, and Greyhound.

Robert Bush of HDR Consulting, an engineering firm, said that the best way to look at the multi-modal hub is “as an airport.” It would cover a three-block radius with various concourses and walkways connecting the different platforms.

Currently six organizations are co-ordinating the progress of expanded triangle and regional transit: North Carolina Railroad, a state-owned corporation that operates privately without the use of state appropriations, Southeast High Speed Rail, tasked with designing high-speed service from Atlanta to D.C. via Charlotte, the Triad, and the Triangle, Triangle Transit, which focuses on commuter and light rail within the Triangle, Amtrak, the state Department of Transportation, and the Capitol Area Metro Planning Organization.

Some council members expressed doubts about the current co-ordination and oversight of the various organizations involved in the project. David King, of Triangle Transit, attempted to allay the council’s fears and said that Triangle Transit’s consultants are already “working to bring all the players to the table and establish each one’s requirements.”

Another option transportation planners are looking into is a street car system that would operate within the beltline.

If the current proposal takes effect the first Raleigh will first see expanded local and regional bus services. Construction would begin in 2018 for the commuter rail and 2020 for the light rail. Both projects would be complete “by 2031 or 2032,” said David King, and there would be the potential for expansion.

The biggest hurdle for the project has yet to be crossed: Money. Federal funding will be available but not a guarantee.

Funding hinges, predominantly on a half-percent increase in sales tax, which can only be passed into law by a referendum vote. The referendum will only take place if county commissioners vote to put it on the ballot in November, 2011.

District D councilor Thomas Crowder, said that “the negative economy looms large on the horizon” in opposition to an increase in sales tax. “You can’t go for a lay-up if you’ve got a seven-footer guarding the basket, and right now the economy is that seven-footer.”

Funding for the multi-modal transportation center “is not dependent on the increase in sales tax,” said Fleming El-Amin, a transportation planner for the City of Raleigh Public Works Department.

“Light rail service into Johnston County would likely be very beneficial,” said David King, “but it will have to decide if it wants to be a part of the before project before we can see how far the light rail service will extend.”

Even adding shelters to the R-line, downtown Raleigh’s free bus service, “is going to be challenging,” says David Eatmon, director of Capitol Area Transit.

He and all the other leaders at today’s meeting are poised to give Raleigh better transportation, but it will be next fall before we know if Raleigh voters are ready.

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