Wake kicks off efforts to update transit plan
Posted December 8, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — Whether Wake County’s mass transit plan will meet the needs of one of the country’s fastest growing areas will be determined by those who live here, an international public transportation planning consultant told a group of elected officials and residents Monday night.
It will also, in part, depend on whether residents want public transportation to serve high density areas or be spread throughout the county, said Jarrett Walker, who also wrote “Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit can Enrich our Communities and Our Lives.”
“If you in this region decide for your transit system to be solely based on ridership, you might not have any service outside of Raleigh and Cary,” he said.
Walker spoke during a kickoff event at the Raleigh Convention Center for the county’s updated transit plan. Over the next few months, residents, municipalities, business leaders and other stakeholders will have input on what Wake County’s mass transit infrastructure will look like.
The effort is a top priority for Wake County commissioners. The four new members of the all-Democratic board ran on a platform that included investing in transit to keep up with growth. The previous Republican-led board remained stagnant on mass transit for years.
Walker, who will serve as an advisor during the planning process, compared the effort to the decision a homeowner has to make between a cheap quick fix or a more expensive permanent solution.
“This project is entirely about your values as a community, not mine,” he said. “But I, as the plumber, get to frame the question. Only if you answer the question that I, as a transit planner, needs to be answered that I can implement your direction so your direction can have impact on reality.”
Transit an ongoing issue
Monday’s meeting is the latest effort to expand the region’s public transit options. The issue is a top priority for the new Wake County Board of Commissioners, which is comprised of all Democrats for the first time in recent memory. The board’s previous Republican majority didn’t embrace expanding mass transit, saying there wasn’t enough ridership to validate the cost and instead wanted a more measured approach. They also never addressed a 2011 transit plan that included commuter rail service between Durham and Garner and light rail service from downtown Cary to Triangle Town Center.
Meanwhile, Triangle Transit is working on a 17-mile light rail system in Durham and Orange counties. The light rail line would run from Chapel Hill to East Durham with proposed stops at UNC Hospitals, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Mason Farm Road, Friday Center, Hillmont, Leigh Village, Patterson Place, South Square, Duke University, Duke University Medical Center, VA Medical Center, downtown Durham and Alston Avenue/N.C. Central University.
The $1.34 billion project, funded through federal dollars and a one-half cent sales tax approved by voters in Durham and Orange counties, also includes new and expanded bus service. Light rail service could begin as early as 2018.
Walker noted Durham and Orange’s efforts.
“You now have a neighboring county who has a transit plan they’re implementing,” he said. "People who are coming to the region will decide which county to choose. They are going to be affected by the availability of transit.”
Wake commissioners said they were lukewarm on expanding light rail service to Wake County when federal funding for the project was announced in February. Then chairman Joe Bryan said he couldn’t support the plan “when you’re counting on 75 percent of the money like a make believe unicorn that’s gonna come from somewhere else.”
The Triangle has tried increasing transit options before. A regional rail plan was discussed in 1995, with the state signing a full-funding grant agreement with Triangle Transit in 2003 for the 35-mile plan, according to the Regional Transportation Alliance, a group founded by area chambers of commerce to represent businesses regarding transportation issues.
The plan was scaled down to 28 miles before Triangle Transit withdrew its federal funding request in 2006 due to the government’s low rating of the proposal.
Meanwhile, bus service has grown across the region with expanded and new express routes. In addition, Raleigh Union Station, a joint effort between the state Department of Transportation and the City of Raleigh, is expected to open in 2017. The facility will replace the Amtrak station on Cabarrus Street and also serve as a transportation hub for local and regional rail and bus service.
A groundbreaking ceremony for the station is scheduled for March 21, 2015 – the 175th anniversary of the first train arriving in Raleigh.
Wake's current mass transit discussion comes as the county surpassed 1 million residents in August.
The county adds 62 new residents a day, Wake officials said. Of those new residents, 31 move in from elsewhere in the state or country, nine come from foreign countries and 22 are babies born in Wake County.
Wake has long been one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation – the 46th largest by population, said Richard Adams, a consultant on the plan who also spoke at Monday’s event.
Adams added that Wake County’s population is expected to reach 1.2 million by 2025.
The ongoing growth is noticeable in the Wake County Public School System, which has had multiple assignment plans in recent years – including the latest approved Dec. 2 – to accommodate the growing number of new students.
Wake’s continued growth makes an updated transit plan necessary as more people want to live in dense, walkable places, said Walker, who added there’s multiple benefits for an area having a viable public transportation network.
“The economic costs is extremely tangible,” he said. “One of the great challenges with transit is that its benefits are so diverse. There’s economic benefits. Social benefits. Environmental benefits. Don’t’ assume that there’s only one kind of benefit. Don’t assume it’s just economic. Often you can challenge transit on one of these points but it delivers across the board in so many ways.”
An open process
Wake residents are encouraged to participate in the county’s current transit planning process, which officials said would focus on public outreach and public education. They can sign up for updates at WakeTransit.com, follow the process on Twitter (@waketransit), participate in surveys and share concerns with elected officials and staff during public meetings and workshops. The planning process is estimated to take seven months.
Two reports detailing the Triangle’s transit options are expected in January and February, according to a working timeline on the Wake Transit website. A corridor analysis and a financial study will be conducted between February and May with a recommended transit network plan due by July.
The finished plan will be evaluated by Wake County, Triangle Transit and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), which includes representatives from every Wake municipality.
Transit supporters hope to have a bond referendum on the Wake County ballot in 2016.
The plan is funded by Wake County, Triangle Transit, CAMPO, the City of Raleigh, the Town of Cary, the Research Triangle Foundation, North Carolina State University and the Raleigh Durham International Airport.