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Public Transit In Triangle At Crossroads

Triangle Transit

Public transportation has long been a contentious topic in the Triangle. As cities like Charlotte have expanded bus service and built a light-rail system, cities like Raleigh and Durham have failed to keep up.

But now, a plan to increase busses and begin the long process of connecting the cities in the Triangle by rail is just a few steps from being implemented. Those last few steps are proving to be the hardest.

Dave DeWitt: If it is ever going to become a viable option, public transportation in the Triangle needs to work for someone like me. A middle-aged guy with kids who lives on a cul-de-sac and commutes about an hour total to work every day.
But I admit, a little shamefully, that I’ve never so much as stepped foot on a bus as a way to get to work. Until today.

DeWitt: Right on time. Y’all take dollar coins?

BUS DRIVER: Yeah, I hate to see it go in there.

The first bus is almost entirely full. Normally, my drive to the brand-new WUNC Studios in the Nature Research Center in downtown Raleigh takes me 25 minutes. I expect the bus will be longer, but I will have wireless much of the way, and the busses I need to transfer onto are on schedule.

The next bus has 4 people on it. After one more transfer, I walk into my office more than 2 hours after I started. That’s probably not going to cut it on a daily basis, but Karen Rindge, an advocate for smart growth and the President of Wake Up Wake County, says it was never designed to.

Karen Rindge: The fact of the matter is, our bus service is really not that great. This Wake transit plan, by doubling the bus service, would bring us up to a reasonable level of service.

There are big plans to improve public transportation in the Triangle, plans designed to appeal to daily commuters like me. Bus service would be greatly expanded and, eventually, a light rail train would go from Chapel Hill through Durham, Cary, and eventually to downtown Raleigh, with dozens of stops along the way… All of it comes with a multi-billion dollar price tag.

But no matter how complete the plan and how efficient the execution, some say it’s never going to work.

Mike Munger: We don’t have enough density to make it pay. It’s always going to lose a lot of money.

Mike Munger is a professor of economics at Duke and a former Libertarian candidate for Governor. He has studied public transportation in Latin American countries and says that here in the Triangle, the numbers don’t add up.

Munger: Almost certainly, unless something else changes, in a place like the Triangle, it’s actually not worth it, in a cost-benefit perspective. The amount that we would have to pay in subsidies is much less than the value of the externalities that we’re going to avoid.

The “externalities” he’s talking about are things like pollution and road congestion. Munger says other benefits – including economic development and employee mobility are not worth such a large investment. He points to Charlotte as an example of how to do it wrong.

Munger: Charlotte’s decision to have light rail has been an economic disaster. It looks like a little set of trains that are designed by Dr. Seuss. There’s never anyone on them. Ridership hasn’t come close to justifying it. The way that our people are arranged doesn’t even work as well as Charlotte did for mass transit. And Charlotte’s experience with light rail is to say it was a mistake.

The 10-mile light rail line in Charlotte cost nearly half-a-billion dollars to build. But still, not many in Charlotte agree that it was a mistake.  It was championed by former mayor and current Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory. And light rail has been largely celebrated since the first rider got on board in 2007. Daily ridership has exceeded expectations and is now more than 15-thousand per day. It’s still not close to paying for itself, but in April city leaders announced it would be extended to the UNC-Charlotte campus.

Raleigh is growing faster than Charlotte, and is set to double in size in the next several decades. Karen Rindge says that’s why public transit improvements are necessary.

Rindge: Building a bold transit system with some kind of fixed guideway rail is probably the most important thing we can do to plan for our growth.

Durham voters already passed the referendum on the half-cent sales tax that would fund its portion of the bus expansion and light rail plan. Orange County is poised to do it this fall.

But Wake County voters may not get the chance to weigh in. The Wake Board of Commissioners has not yet voted to put it on the ballot. With the Board split, the future of transit in the Triangle comes down to the votes of 1 or maybe 2 commissioners. Joe Bryan is one of those swing votes.

Joe Bryan: If you are in a more urban section living inside the beltline in Raleigh, than you want transit. If you’re a more rural area like Eastern Wake County where I am then it’s a little more difficult to see the value.

Bryan says a recent poll persuaded him. It showed that slightly more than 50-percent of those polled support paying for light rail with a half-cent sales tax. That’s not enough, he says. Even with the long list of supporting group almost all of the 12 municipalities in Wake County and the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce say they want to send the referendum to a vote this fall. Bryan doesn’t think that’s going to happen.

Bryan: I do not think it will be this fall, due to higher priorities that I see in Wake County.

Those priorities include a half-a-billion dollar school bond that is likely to go before voters next year. The Wake Board of Commissioners has until July first of this year to put the public transit referendum on the November ballot. If they don’t, the prospects look dim. Next year, that school bond will clog up the political process, putting the future of transit, at least in Wake County, in a legislative traffic jam.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Politics and Education. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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