Business group wants to reconsider rail transit
A key business group has urged officials in Wake County to focus transit planning on bus systems rather than on the sort of rail links neighboring Durham and Orange counties want to build.
The Regional Transportation Alliance floated its support for a move to “bus rapid transit” via a position paper that’s been circulating among local leaders since August.
It said a bus-based system in Wake County would be a “more effective and viable approach” than a rail plan that includes rush-hour links to Durham and a light-rail line between north Raleigh and Cary.
The alliance’s president, Joe Milazzo, said Tuesday the paper was “the result of work we’ve done over the last year looking at the Wake County situation.”
Voters in Durham and Orange in referenda have approved sales-tax surcharges to raise money for transit improvements, to include a light-rail connection between Durham and Chapel Hill. But the transit debate in Wake County is stalled.
Wake’s Republican-majority County Commissioners haven’t scheduled a referendum, and alliance-funded polling has consistently indicated the idea of the levy has only bare-majority support among Wake voters.
Milazzo’s group is a coalition of the chambers of commerce in all three counties and a number of the area’s leading businesses. It’s been active behind the scenes in shaping local planning and securing the state’s authorization of the sales-tax surcharge.
While working up the new paper, alliance leaders talked to all seven Wake County commissioners and the mayors of Wake’s 12 cities and towns. They also looked over bus-centric systems in places like Cleveland and Nashville, Tenn.
“Bus rapid transit” or BRT is the term planners use for a set of technologies that, in their most advanced form, are like a light-rail system that uses buses instead of trains.
In some places, the buses run on special roads that aren’t open to cars. In others, they share ordinary roads, but can move more quickly than other traffic thanks to having their own special lanes or radio equipment drivers can use to override traffic signals.
Alliance leaders argue that BRT would be both quicker and less expensive to implement than rail technology. They also say it would be much more flexible – a key point, given that Wake County’s politics and economics are much more factionalized than either Durham’s or Orange’s.
Rail supporters, and Triangle Transit, have argued that implementing rail would enable the region to channel its future population and business growth into places along the rail corridor, particularly near RTP and the area’s major universities.
The alliance paper implicitly disagreed with that strategy, calling the existing plan “narrow focused geographically.”
A bus-based system, by contrast, “has a series of possible elements that can be included on a case-by-case, scaleable and flexible basis to improve … overall mobility throughout Wake County,” it said.
The paper nonetheless left the door open for considering rail, both as a long-term prospect and as short-run measuring stick of the viability of bus projects. It singled out a Raleigh-to-Durham corridor and a link between Raleigh and Johnston County as connections meriting a detailed comparison of options.
Triangle Transit officials have questioned the viability of a BRT system here, as they see few options for installing time-saving, bus-only roads in the region and no chance of buses being allowed to run on existing railroad rights of way.
But the transit agency’s general manager, David King, conceded that established plans need regular updates if they’re to stay relevant as communities evolve.
In the course of that, “there will be a debate about appropriate [technology] mix,” he said.
“Some folks in community will push back hard in favor of at least some rail; that’s all part of a process of everybody’s view being considered,” King added. “And there are stakeholders like RTP and N.C. State [University] and Morrisville and Garner and downtown Raleigh who would be disappointed and dismayed if there were not some rail.”