Investment for mass transit needed now, group says

Posted December 9, 2008 7:12 p.m. EST
Updated December 10, 2008 12:09 p.m. EST

— The Regional Transportation Alliance, at its annual meeting Tuesday, supported a vision for mass transit in the Triangle that would include commuter rail and more buses.

The organization, which focuses on ways to relieve traffic congestion in an effort to promote strong business in the area, also believes there should be an investment in road projects to help ease congestion and the problems that go along with it.

The group is focusing its efforts on finishing the new stretch of N.C. Highway 540 from Morrisville to Holly Springs and widening a section of Interstate 40 between Raleigh and Cary.

It also wants improved air service at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and more flights to more destinations.

With projections of an additional 1 million people moving to the Triangle in the next 20 years, advocates say congestion in the area is expected to get much worse and could become like to that of major cities like Atlanta.

"Those investments certainly have a cost, but there's also a cost of doing nothing," said RTA's executive director, Joe Milazzo. "If we choose to do nothing at all, we know what's going to happen: more congestion, lack of options – it's going to make us less competitive, overall."

Wake County Commissioner Joe Bryan, however, says he would like to see a more defined plan and an improving economy. The state Department of Transportation estimates a $1 billion budget shortfall over the next three years because of the slowing economy.

"There's a lot of work to be done, versus just cheerleading at this point in time," Bryan said. "Is the timing right for an additional investment, an additional tax, an additional fee? I doubt that's the case, personally."

A regional transit plan, which could be in place by 2035, is under consideration by local leaders and includes an enhanced bus network throughout the Triangle. Part of that is express service to and from Raleigh-Durham International Airport and rush-hour-only bus service to outlying communities.

Another recommendation is "circulators" – initially buses and possibly later on streetcars or trolleys – in downtown areas with a system of park-and-ride lots.

Rail service from Chapel Hill to north Raleigh utilizing diesel rail cars and Light Rail Transit would provide transportation alternatives in some of the most congested corridors of the Triangle.

Fifty percent of funding for a regional 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.

"You've got to anticipate it," Milazzo said. "We see the population coming. Those investments need to occur."