Traffic

Regional transit plan goes to Triangle leaders

Posted May 21, 2008 12:59 p.m. EDT
Updated May 22, 2008 8:27 a.m. EDT

— A citizen advisory group making recommendations for a multibillion-dollar regional transit system for the Triangle presented its final report to area leaders and transportation officials Wednesday.

But it comes with mixed reactions from community members, some of whom question whether the plan is right for the area at this time.

The Special Transit Advisory Commission has spent a year developing the proposed combination of buses, rail systems and "circulators" that, it says, is needed to help meet the area's growing transportation needs and to help the region compete for new industry and better jobs.

Among its key recommendations:

  • An enhanced bus network throughout the Triangle that includes express service to and from Raleigh-Durham International Airport and rush-hour-only bus service to outlying communities.
  • Rail service stretching 56 miles from Chapel Hill to north Raleigh, utilizing diesel rail cars and Light Rail Transit.
  • "Circulators" – initially buses and possibly later, streetcars or trolleys – operating in downtown areas and combined with a system of park-and-ride lots.

Fifty percent of funding for the system would come from local governments and 25 percent each from the state and federal governments. The local portion would come from a proposed half-cent sales-tax increase and a $10 increase in vehicle registration fees.

"Eventually, the pain will be too great, and you'll have to do it," said Joe Milazzo, executive director of the Regional Transportation Alliance, a proponent of the plan and the sales-tax increase.

"What this plan is trying to do is give us a compass heading in a way to get ahead of the problem," he added. "Right now, it makes all the sense in the world to try to connect this region together."

Others, however, oppose the plan, saying, for example, that light rail transit is too costly to justify the projected ridership.

"We don't live in that world where resources grow on trees," said Max Borders, a policy analyst with the Civitas Institute of North Carolina, which opposes the plan. "We have to prioritize, and the priority now really ought to be roads and buses."

Some Wake County commissioners who opposed a previous $800 million commuter-rail system, backed by the Triangle Transit Authority, said they are open to learning more about this proposal and how it would benefit the area.

The TTA scrapped its plan for the previous regional rail after the federal government, in 2005, rejected funding for it.

STAC said its proposal is better because it covers a broader area than the TTA's plan did and also has sufficient local funding.

"There has to be a local component," STAC co-chairman George Cianciolo said. "The federal and state authorities want to see that the local people are committed and believe in it and aren't just looking for a free ride."

It is now up to local metropolitan planning organizations, made up of local government representatives and transportation authorities, to integrate the proposal into their long-term transportation plans.

They must go before the Legislature to get a referendum for any sales-tax increase to get on the ballot, most likely in 2010.

If that happens, the regional transit system could be in place by 2035, when the region's estimated population would be about 2.5 million people.

STAC's final report was not publicly available Wednesday but was expected to be posted on the committee's Web site Thursday.