The television news program "Now on PBS" this week looks at whether transportation funds contained in the federal stimulus package will help mass transit or be sucked up for roads. Case study: North Carolina.
The program is an excellent review (about 24:00 long; the last 2:00 is something else) of how light-rail transit is working great in Charlotte (starring Mayor Pat McCrory), but not in the Triangle ... and why regardless of the difference, neither Charlotte nor the Triangle may see any stimulus money for transit.
Two reasons for that: 1) the federal transportation money is coming through the state departments of transportation, in N.C. an historically road-friendly, but transit-unfriendly bunch; and 2) because the Bush Administration discouraged forward transit planning for eight years, few transit projects are "shovel-ready" anywhere in the U.S., including North Carolina, at a time when the premium is on creating construction jobs immediately, not just someday.
Triangle Transit's David King is one of the TV show's featured "victims," saying to PBS what he told us at the Indy a few weeks ago: We're being penalized for not looking ahead after being told four years ago not to look ahead. Ouch.
Note, first, that Raleigh adopted its current comprehensive plan in 1989, after the regional rail transit plan was hatched. The ’89 comp plan, in theory, should've stemmed the rampant sprawl and prompted dense developments to occur in close proximity to the planned station stops along the rail line, thus supplying the residents and the destinations (offices, stores) needed to make it hum. [CP, T & Splatter - I: The Back Story]
Didn’t happen. Dense developments were allowed to go elsewhere, and so they did, and they never came to rail line, which therefore never materialized. The sprawl, of course, continued apace – fueled, ironically, by the dispersal of the dense developments that did occur.
So now, 20 years later, Raleigh Planning Director Mitch Silver and his deputy, Ken Bowers, have unveiled a new comp plan – in draft form – and vow that it will … it must … usher in that same rail line together with a “very robust bus system” to mesh with it.
With transit, they say, Raleigh can reverse its sprawling ways and achieve a more efficient, “urban form” using re-development and dense infill projects that don’t – because of the transit – need a lot of suburban-style parking.
Without it, they warn, Raleigh’s sprawl will make Atlanta’s pale, and Raleigh will lose favor as a location for talented people and the businesses that depend on them.
Our 2 Planning Crew is singing the right tune, imho. The melody is sweet. But I’m afraid that underneath, the lyrics and arrangement – the actual text of the comp plan draft, that is, and the maps that go with it – are unfocused and discordant.
Here’s my fear: That once again, we have a comp plan that is meant to spark transit, is imagined to spark transit, but will not in fact spark transit in the way its authors or transit supporters intend. It may instead have the opposite effect of reinforcing our car-dependency and our sprawl.
Nah. Bad idea.
But let's not let the mayor down, jingle writers.
"I'm waiting for people to write the music to the R-Line," Meeker said.
The launch of the R-Line this morning is a reminder that Raleigh still has no song to sing. No Chattanooga Choo-Choo.
Update: Nice post at New Raleigh about the Downtown Raleigh Alliance and its "YouRHere" brand. We may could use that in our tune.
In between rants about regional transit and why it's not here yet (and why it won't be any time soon), let's pause to celebrate a notable, if small, step forward for Mankind/Raleigh division.
It will take place Friday morning, 8:30 am in front of the Convention Center on Salisbury Street. Mayor Charles Meeker will christen the new downtown circulator bus service, nee the R-Line, which will henceforth follow the route shown from Glenwood South to the downtown loop at 10-15 minute headways. In other words, two buses will travel the route, and if it takes them 25 minutes to make it around, you'll see the next one come by in no more than 12.5 minutes.
And it's free.
Hours are good -- 7 am to 11 pm M-W; 7 am to 2:15 am Th-Sa; and 1-8 pm Su -- when you should be in church.
After 6:30 pm, btw, city sez the R-Line will bulge a bit in the direction(s) of City Market and the Warehouse district, which will have "little, if any, effect" on those 10-15 minute headways, while reaching most of the downtown clubs and restaurants. OK.
Next stop, Irregardless. The IHOP. Porter's. Fraziers. Whoa, I'm thinkin' crazy, I know.
I've told this story before, but not here, I don't believe. When my wife and I moved to the Triangle 20-plus years ago now, we saw something in the local press about growing traffic congestion and we just laughed -- we were from NJ, after all, where they invented congestion. (And sprawl.) Besides which, we had just driven from the northern outskirts of Raleigh to our home in downtown Raleigh (Cameron Park) in something like 12 minutes flat. Congestion? Not so much. Sprawl, though.
I soon came to understand that the planners in the region were working on a sprawl-congestion remedy in the form of a transit "trunk" line that would connect Durham to Raleigh and the western side of the region to the eastern side. This trunk line would, it was thought, "pull" development patterns away from sprawl and back to a future of density in the center, the center being the railroad corridor that ran from downtown Raleigh to downtown Cary to downtown Durham, passing RTP along the way. Put a commuter rail service in the corridor alongside the Amtrak and freight trains, the planners said, and very high-density developments would spring up all along the way.
What was it that Mayor Meeker said about Raleigh's new comprehensive plan? It's only a first draft, of course, and the Planning Department staff is busy considering the comments on it that came in by the Jan. 31 deadline ... a revised draft will go to public hearing in March, with the goal -- well, Meeker's goal anyway -- of speeding it through the planning commission to final City Council adoption in June.
But the mayor said last week, in his State of the City speech, that it's already "a great plan" -- in fact, it's "the best plan of any city in the country" if he's any judge. So why delay?
But just in case he's missed something, and the plan isn't ready to be etched on stone tablets, CAC leaders in West Raleigh are holding an open forum to talk about it next Wednesday, Feb. 11, 6:30-9 pm in City Hall. (In the Council meeting chamber.) Their primary interest is in how the plan would impact West Raleigh neighborhoods, but its citywide effects are also fair game. And everyone is welcome.
To my knowledge, this is the first opportunity citizens have had to discuss the draft plan in public with each other. Planning Director Mitch Silver & staff have done yeoman work presenting the plan to folks in a variety of settings, but of necessity it's been the once-over and a one-sided conversation, with Silver & Co. doing all the talking. Now it's the public's turn.
Have you read the plan? (And/or the land-use map?) See any problems? Interested in whether your fellow citizens see any? This is not just your first chance to share a thought, it could actually prove to be your last chance unless other such forums are organized by somebody between now and June. Because just between you, me and the lamp post, the public hearing process the Council and planning commission use is anything but citizen-friendly, and is absolutely not designed to let the people engage with one another -- or think out loud about how the plan might be strengthened.
I think there are some serious issues -- some questions, anyway -- that should be addressed before this plan is adopted. They center on transit, affordable housing, and the juxtaposition of dense infill developments to older neighborhoods (i.e., "transitions"). More about them later.
But the most serious issue, in my mind, is this: For any comprehensive plan to be effective, the public must understand it, embrace it and be prepared to implement it (or support its implementation) with specific programs, policies and ultimately with zoning changes in the coming years. The public must also be on guard to defend its plan against a thousand exceptions, variances and rezonings of the kind that turned the old (but still current) comprehensive plan into swiss cheese. Otherwise, the city will continue to develop piecemeal according to the individual decisions of landowners and builders--a.k.a., the market. (And if that's all we want, any plan will do.)
The process so far has not yielded much understanding of the plan, outside the development community anyway, let alone the public passion to fight for it down the line. However great or weak the plan is otherwise, that strikes me a potentially fatal flaw.