Editorial: Putting brakes on mass transit

Mar. 11, 2013 @ 02:56 PM

Reading the tea leaves out of Raleigh is always an intriguing pastime for local officials for whom the actions in the capital can have high stakes. Never is that more true than in the early days of a new administration – and that’s especially so this year with Republicans in control of the legislature and the governor’s office for the first time in more than a century.

And while the new landscape last year offered a rare breath of optimism for Durham officials on one front last week – the possibility of easing potentially devastatingly expensive regulations for treating water headed into Falls Lake – news on the transit front was less encouraging.

Mayor Bill Bell, briefing his City Council colleagues on discussions with Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders last week, indicated that mass transit may be a back-burner project for Raleigh’s current leadership.

N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger was, in Bell’s telling, especially cool to the idea of any state subsidy for mass transit projects such as light-rail system that Triangle officials, especially in Chapel Hill and Durham, favor as a long-term transportation solution.

The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg, summarizing Bell’s account of his meetings, reported “Berger’s view…implies that if local officials want state money they’d be better off tearing up the transit plan and figuring out where to expand existing roads.”

Local transit planners have had some hope that McCrory’s urban background as mayor of Charlotte – where he championed a light rail line built with state subsidies – would translate into support for a light-rail project here.

But McCrory indicated the project would have to pass congestion-reducing tests that would be fairly stringent. And N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis suggested the state would support no more such projects. In his view, communities would be wholly responsible for funding any such projects – and then, only with voter approval in a referendum.

Durham and Chapel Hill’s light-rail plans have always had an environmental aspect beyond simply reducing congestion on Interstate 40 and other area roads, and consensus has always been elusive on that.

Now it looks as if, at least for a while, there’s little chance of those plans moving forward. That will only increase the need to look, as local officials have been doing, at expanding and enhancing existing bus service as a transit alternative.