Remember the flyover bridges? The railroad tunnels? They are, if not gone forever, at least off the table for now as Light-Rail Transit Plan 2.0 takes shape for DTR (Downtown Raleigh).
A good time to take it all in — or have your say — would be Aug. 1, when the City Council conducts a workshop and public hearing on the two alternative routes that are on the table as Triangle Transit (TTA) moves ahead with the process of once again applying for federal aid.
The two alternatives are called D6 and D6A:
* Under D6, the light-rail line would follow the main rail corridor from the Fairgrounds through NCSU to Charlie Goodnight's; from there, it would depart the corridor and run on West Morgan Street, turn north on Harrington Street and continue until it connects with the CSX rail corridor near the intersection of Harrington and Lane streets. A "State Government" station would be located between Lane and North streets.
The D6 route is shown on this Triangle Transit-generated map of the various alternatives it studied (and though D6A wasn't one of them, you can see by the map how it would work as well):
D6A is depicted in this map linked to by the Downtown Living Advocates:
* Under D6A, the light-rail line would run on West Morgan Street all the way to the Capitol; the eastbound/northbound cars would turn north on Wilmington Street and run to the CSX corridor; going the other way, the southbound/westbound cars would come from the CSX corridor and go south on Salisbury Street — on the other side of the Capitol — to Hillsborough Street, turn west and go a couple of blocks to Harrington before turning south again and connecting to West Morgan.
Thus, under D6A, West Morgan between Charlie Goodnight's and Harrington Street would need two sets of tracks — one on the south side of West Morgan heading for the Capitol, and the other on the north side of West Morgan heading for Charlie Goodnight's and the main rail corridor.
The D6A map is showing four stations in DTF — one at Goodnight's, one at a Union Station stop in the Warehouse District, one on Harrington Street near Lane Street and one at or near Peace Street. All four, it should be said, are highly conceptual given that the D6A alignment is a late-starter in the TTA planning process and hasn't really been vetted the way D6 and other earlier alignments were.
D6A is a new idea proposed by the city's Passenger Rail Task Force, which has formally recommended it to the Council.
City staff prefer D6, according to this good writeup on the Downtown Living Advocates website.
Finally, the city's public affairs staff put out a press release this morning announcing the workshop/hearing and explaining the PRTF's D6A proposal:
Members of the City’s Passenger Rail Task Force will appear at the workshop to discuss with the City Council their proposal for the planned light rail system. The public hearing will give residents an opportunity to comment on the task force’s recommendations.
The Passenger Rail Task Force is recommending the City Council approve the D6a route, a hybrid route that uses parts of two alternative routes studied by Triangle Transit. The D6a route would better serve Downtown workers, especially state government employees, according to task force members who support the route. The task force also is recommending the light rail system use light rail transit railcars electrically powered by overhead wires.
A Union Station would serve as a hub for the planned light rail system as well as for commuter trains and Downtown bus service, coordinating both local and regional transit service providers in a single multi-modal transit facility. City staff is currently working with the North Carolina Department of Transportation on evaluating the suitability of a building at 510 W. Martin Street as a site for the Union Station. The City’s $40 million transportation bond issue that will be on the Oct. 11 ballot for voter approval includes $3 million for the Union Station proposal.
Going east and north, the D6a route proposed by the Passenger Rail Task Force would diverge from the North Carolina Railroad (NCRR) rail corridor and proceed east along West Morgan Street. It would pass the north edge of the planned Union Station area at the West Morgan Street bridge over the railroad tracks in the Boylan Wye. The route would then continue east to Union Square where it would turn north onto Wilmington Street until it joined the CSX rail corridor.
Going south and west, the proposed D6a route would diverge from the CSX rail corridor to follow Salisbury Street going south. It would turn west onto Hillsborough Street, then south onto Harrington Street and finally west to rejoin West Morgan Street, passing the north edge of the Union Station area at the West Morgan Street bridge over the railroad tracks in the Boylan Wye. The route would continue west to join the NCRR rail corridor on West Morgan Street.
The D6a route would have two light rail tracks on West Morgan Street from near Hillsborough Street to Harrington Street —- one track for eastbound light rail transit railcars and one track for westbound railcars. The railcars in both directions would operate in conjunction with vehicular traffic on this section of West Morgan Street.
Council members appointed the 11-member Passenger Rail Task Force to advise them on several specific issues related to the future provision of passenger rail service to Raleigh, be it locally, regionally, or long-distance.
And you thought we'd have to wait another decade at least to get rail-transit service in Raleigh. Not at all. In fact, we already have rail-transit service — didn't you know? You can jump on a train to Durham three times a day, and three times a day you can jump on a train in Durham that'll take you back to Raleigh. With stops in between at the Cary train station.
It's called Amtrak, and it costs $6 or $7 one-way. Scheduled trip times run 35 minutes, plus or minus. (Not counting waiting times if your train is late arriving in Durham from Charlotte or in Raleigh from Washington, DC.)
Which is what the story ("Building Could Save Rail Hub") in the N&O this morning was all about. It's about a building for Amtrak and, prospectively, for some future Raleigh-to-Durham trains that would be similar in operation to Amtrak's trains.
Now, if that kind of service is NOT what you had in mind for rail-transit ... if you were thinking instead of a light-rail/streetcar system with lots of station stops in lots of places between downtown Raleigh, downtown Cary and downtown Durham, then yes, such a thing is still a decade off or two — or more. This building: Not relevant.
But commuter-rail, as opposed to light-rail, is here now, sort of. Three round-trips a day with a fourth planned. And that's just Amtrak.
An additional four Amtrak-style round trips between Raleigh and Durham are in our not-too-distant future if the DOT and the Triangle Transit Authority can get them organized using that 1/2-cent sales tax for transit we've dreamed of for so long — and maybe some federal $$$ as well.
If the 1/2-cent transit tax were in place, the money would flow to the Triangle Transit Authority, which might operate these additional trains itself or contract with someone else for their operation — perhaps the N.C. Roadroad Corp., a state-controlled entity which owns the tracks on which the Amtrak trains (and some freight trains) run.
That's all a pretty big "if" because, of course, the 1/2-cent tax must be approved by the voters in Wake County before any money can flow to the TTA for use in Raleigh, Cary or on the Wake County side of RTP. And the voters can't approve it unless the Wake County Commissioners agree to put the question to a ballot referendum. And the Republican-led commissioners board so far has shown zero interest in taking that step.
Durham County voters, on the other hand, will decide this fall on the question of a 1/2-cent sales tax for transit in Durham. Approval there could light a fire in Wake for improved service. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
Even without the additional commuter-rail trains to Durham, Raleigh's passenger-rail station — the Amtrak station on West Cabarrus Street — is woefully inadequate. No amenities for the waiting passengers. Not nearly enough parking. Far too small for a city of 400,000. Amtrak, which leases the station from the N.C. Railroad Corp., desperately wants something better so it can serve more riders. DOT wants it too. Ditto Raleigh.
A year ago, the Raleigh planning department rolled out an ambitious scheme (I'm tempted to say pie-in-the-sky, but I believe the point was to get everybody dreaming a little) for a new "Union Station" big enough to serve ALL of our future rail needs in downtown Raleigh — Amtrak, commuter-rail, high-speed rail, light-rail, any kind of rail you want — at a cost of, oh, who knows? Guesses ranged upwards from $150 million.
Just as light-rail is a distant hope, however, so too is any such Union Station scheme. (So is high-speed rail, for that matter.)
Meanwhile, Amtrak needs a station now. And if we do get a 1/2-cent sales tax approved in Wake, the additional commuter-rail trains between Raleigh and Durham could be up and running in a few years, in which case they'd need a station too.
Enter, yesterday, NC DOT with a more realistic station plan that, at least at first blush, may be feasible in the foreseeable future and, in the long run, be not incompatible with a Union Station idea, though it doesn't square exactly with the Union Station scheme as unveiled in April, 2010.
DOT's idea is an adaptive reuse, at a guesstimated cost of $20 million, of one of the old Dillon Supply buildings in the warehouse district of Raleigh, one you may not have even realized was there. Most of us are familiar with the Dillon Buildings on West Street, which were purchased by the TTA six years ago in connection with its original light-rail plans. But there's another Dillon building not on West Street. It's actually located in the railroad wye, hidden behind a small non-Dillon building that TTA also purchased. Right next to it is a pretty good-sized parking lot, which sits behind the Flanders Art Gallery building.
The Dillon building in question is the one in the distance in the photo below, looking west on West Martin Street. It's a big old steel-and-brick building located behind the little building with the Capital City Sedan sign on it. In the DOT plan, the little building would be torn down, creating the chance for a nifty plaza in front of the big old building, which would become Raleigh's new Amtrak/commuter-rail station — with plenty of room for shoppes and such.
At this point, the DOT idea is just that — for the next couple of months, DOT is studying whether the Dillon building is structurally sound. If it is, a search for federal, state or other dollars would follow. Raleigh would be asked to pay 10 percent — about $2 million — which Will Allen, co-chair of the city's passenger rail advisory task force reckoned would be a pretty good bargain.
Until the new Contemporary Art Museum opened a few weeks ago, I'd never been in the Flanders gallery, let alone behind it. But my search for a parking space one night led me back to the parking lot and, for the first time, I paid attention to the building back there with it. This map from DOT shows its location. For contrast, the planning department's Union Station would've occupied two full blocks on the west side of West Street between West Morgan and West Martin:
[Pdf of the map — bigger, easier to see, is here: RaleighstationDOTplanmap.pdf
The way this would work, based on what the DOT Rail Division's Allan Paul said yesterday in a walk-through with members of the City Council's passenger rail advisory task force, is:
1) The existing Amtrak station would be converted to some other use by its owner, the N.C. Railroad Corp. (it used to be a restaurant).
2) A new Amtrak station would be set up in the designated Dillon Supply building, the one marked "Proposed Raleigh Train Station."
3) The station would also have room for TTA commuter-rail trains if and when they come along.
4) The Amtrak and TTA trains would each use the existing NCRR rail corridor. But an extra set of tracks, and platforms, would be built to bring them into and out of the rail station. Passengers would walk out the front door of the rail station to reach the platforms.
5) Inside the rail station would be a waiting area, shoppes, restaurants; it's a huge building.
6) In front of the rail station, a plaza could welcome visitors to a great view down West Martin Street, with the new CAM and Designbox on their right and Nash Square just two blocks ahead.
7) The same plaza could serve as the front door for a shopping area in the Dillon buildings going north, all of which are sitting empty and await adaptive re-use (or, ugh, teardown).
8) A future high-speed rail platform is pencilled in ("Proposed S-Line Platform"). It needs to be r-e-a-l long, so you see it extending north from West Hargett Street all the way into the Glenwood South district, going under both West Morgan Street and Hillsborough Street en route.
9) A future light-rail line may well come into downtown Raleigh on West Morgani Street, with a station stop somewhere between Boylan Avenue and West Street.
10) Planners and architects, get busy: We need a people-mover system of some kind to get folks from the rail station to the light-rail station to the high-speed station — and put a roof over it all, OK?
Now, bottom line on this idea. It doesn't advance light-rail much, if at all. What it does advance is the potential for commuter-rail that comes into Raleigh from Garner, Clayton, and Johnston County and then departs for Cary and Durham.
The whole idea of light-rail stations, remember, is to transform development patterns in Raleigh and the Triangle by fostering dense, mixed-used developments around each station ... thus curbing sprawl in areas not near a station.
This is almost the opposite — it's rail designed to serve the sprawl out to Johnston County in much the same way commuter rail into New York City supported the sprawling development of New Jersey, Long Island and Connecticut in the 1950s, back when gasoline cost 30 cents a gallon.
Future commuter-rail connections could run north out of Raleigh to Wake Forest and Franklin County, other places where sprawl can find a home.
Politically speaking, it would be grand if we were ready to build light-rail and say no to commuter-rail — or, at least, no to only building commuter-rail.
I'm afraid, though, that where we actually are politically — at least in Wake County — is under a Republican regime that is fundamentally opposed to any sort of transit, but which may be willing to swallow commuter-rail transit because their developer friends (funders) want it.
Maybe Durham, with its 1/2-cent sales tax, will lead the way to light-rail in the Triangle with a system that goes west to Chapel Hill — leaving Raleigh with a goose egg ... and light-rail envy?
Triangle Transit planners launched a new round of "alternatives analysis" workshops last night at Triangle Town Center. Subject: Rail transit — now proposed to be a hybrid commuter-rail and light-rail system — for the region. Another workshop is slated this evening, 4-7 p.m., in Durham and a third is tomorrow, same time, in Chapel Hill. Two more Raleigh sessions are scheduled next week along with one in Cary and one in RTP. For locations and times, see the project website. I wrote an article for the printed Indy this week. I'll put a link in here (with a sidebar here — it's in two parts now) when the story is posted online later today. Consider this effort a pictoral introduction, with pretty illustrations courtesy of TTA below.
In Wake County, the proposed light-rail line will link Cary/Morrisville/RTP to Raleigh using the main Amtrak-freight rail corridor past the State Fairgrounds and N.C. State University. Where is goes after that is the big "alternative" in the room at these workshops. The TTA has put out three option, two of which involve a bridge over Boylan Avenue:
1) One option is to bring the light-rail line out of the main corridor west of Boylan Avenue and then bridge it over S. Boylan and W. Hargett Street. That would allow a direct connection to — and a station stop within — the proposed Union Station at West Street between W. Hargett and W. Morgan. The image above is a close-up of what the bridge would look going over Boylan. Below is a wide view showing its connection to the Union Station site and — eventually — to a northbound route up West Street or Harrington Street.
2) A second option would also bring the light rail line out of the main corridor west of Boylan Avenue and bridge it over S. Boylan, but then it would swing to the south, where it could connect to another alternative — a streetcar loop running on Salisbury and Wilmington streets. This is shown below in two images, one a closeup at the current Amtrak station location and the other a wide view. As you can tell from the length of the span, this would be the most expensive option.
3) The third option doesn't involve a bridge, but it has its own complications. The light-rail line would come out of the main corridor at W. Morgan Street, just below Charlie Goodnight's and Irregardless, and then track into the West Side district on W. Morgan — streetcar-style — before looping north on Harrington. (TTA did not do a photo illustration of it.)
Because the main railroad corridor is virtually at-grade where it abuts W. Morgan, no bridge is needed to make the connection there. However, W. Morgan drops in elevation as it moves east and is dropping right where the front door of the Union Station would be; thus, a station stop there is highly problematic, if not impossible, given ADA access requirements. Unless the street configuration is changed somehow, any "Union Station stop" would be near Union Station but not at it or in it. Which is kind of a big problem.
There was much talk last night among the TTA planners and a contingent of Raleigh city officials who came out (Russ Stephenson, Eric Lamb, Ken Bowers, Roberta Fox) about whether a West Morgan streetcar line (option 3) could be made to work with Union Station. No resolution on that subject, or none that I heard.
What I did hear is that TTA means to defer to Raleigh's view on this — in other words, if Raleigh wants the W. Morgan route, then TTA will back it and help it become the "locally preferred alternative" — a term freighted with meaning in federal funding parlance. That doesn't mean that the TTA folks don't have their own views. What it means is that, as a political reality, they understand that it's up to Raleigh where the Raleigh light-rail line goes.
Or rather, it's up to Raleigh and then it's up to CAMPO, where Raleigh has a major voice but not the only one.
The poll was taken for the Regional Transportation Alliance — judge accordingly, but the questions seem reasonably straightforward. Traffic congestion is NOT the number one concern in the Triangle. That said, three out of four favor a rail-transit system for commuting and/or a combination of rail and better-bus transit. More than half are even prepared to pay for it via a 1/2-cent sales tax for transit. (That last figure dropped from almost 57 percent to barely 51 percent when the ante was upped to 3/4-cent for better transit AND schools.)
‘‘Nearly 60% of voters in the western Triangle counties of Durham and Orange would be willing to support a half-cent sales tax to improve transit offerings,” said Paul Fallon of Fallon Research and Communications of Columbus, OH. “While the support is conceptual since the respondents were not reacting to a specific package of bus and rail investments, that is still strong support given the ongoing sluggishness of the economy and the presence of the existing temporary sales tax.”
(More from the RTA below the fold.)
Triangle Transit is holding public forums (workshops) beginning next week to explain its latest thinking and get public input on what a regional transit plan should look like and where it should go. The forums are part of a process required before the TTA can apply for federal funding under the New Starts grants category. The schedule for the forums is here.
I kept hearing that the new plan would have more station stops than previous plans. Yup. I count 16 in the Orange-Durham corridor, some of which would be potential stops for a Bus Rapid Transit system rather than light-rail stops. In the Wake light-rail corridor plan, 20 stops are listed.
A possible Durham-Wake commuter-rail scheme running from downtown Durham to a station at Greenfield Parkway, southeast of Garner, would use some of the same stations as the light-rail system, but not all of them.
* commuter-rail = less frequency, moves faster, fewer stations, service mainly at rush hours;
* light-rail = greater frequency, moves slower, stations every mile or so, service at all/most hours;
I was told that this list is subject to change right up to the first forum — and may well change later as a result of the forums. With those caveats, here t'is:
Potential Rail Stops: Triangle Regional Transit Plan
Orange-Durham corridor: (looking at BRT and LR)
• Mason Farm
• Friday Center/Meadwomont/Woodmont
• Leigh Village Station
• South Square A or B
• Duke Medical
• 9th St
• Allston Ave
Wake LRT Corridor: 18 miles, 20 stations, 15 vehicles, 29-32 mph ave, 34-41 minutes travel time, 4350 park and ride spaces, 51 bus bays
Stations: (about 1 mile apart, all on the NCRR corridor)
• Cary Parkway
• NW Maynard/Cary
• Downtown Cary/Depot — shared w/commuter and Amtrak
• NE Maynard
• West Raleigh (just east of I 40, NC 54) — commuter rail and large park and ride
• Jones Franklin/Western
• State Fairgrounds
• Gorman/Hillsborough St./Meredith College
• NCSU/Dan Allen
• NCSU/Pullen Rd. - commuter rail
• West Morgan St.
• Downtown Raleigh — commuter rail too; 2 alternatives: follow Morgan St. to Harrington St or West St. (will operate as a streetcar for about 1/3 of mile, where cars can travel along with LR) OR go over Boylan St. Bridge (creating a Union Station w/ high speed rail) OR going towards South St/Amtrak station and then north up Salisbury
• Peace St. (paralleling Atlantic)
• Whittaker Mill
• Six Forks/Atlantic Ave.
• New Hope Church Rd (between Atlantic and Old Wake Forest Rd)
• Millbrook Rd.
• Spring Forest
• Then either to NE Regional Station (where 540 goes over rail corridor) OR to Triangle Town Center (big park and ride)
(Boylan Bridge — until agreement reached with railroad, have to show only option of a bridge OVER Boylan Bridge, but hope to go under it)
Durham-Wake Commuter Corridor: (looking at commuter rail; some overlap with LRT stations)
37 miles, 12 stations, 15 vehicles, 43 mph ave., 51 min travel time, 4400 Park and Ride, 40 bus bays
Stations: from Durham to Greenfield Parkway southeast of Garner
Word on the prospects for a 1/2-cent sales tax for transit in the Triangle after the Regional Transportation Alliance breakfast meeting this morning:
* Durham and Orange counties are looking seriously at asking voters this fall to approve a different sales tax increase — the 1/4-cent tax hike authorized by the legislature to support schools or other needs.
* Durham and Orange may wind up asking voters to approve a package — the 1/4-cent tax for schools and the 1/2-cent tax for transit. This, according to Michael Page, chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners and Bernadette Pelissier, chair of the Orange County Board of Commissioners. Both said the question of what will be on the ballot this fall is yet to be decided.
* Wake County's commissioners will not let the voters consider either tax increase this year. The 1/2-cent tax for transit may get to the ballot in May or November of 2012, or it may get there in May of 2013 — or later. This according to Wake Commissioner Tony Gurley, who spoke in place of Wake Commissioners Chair Paul Coble.
Why Coble didn't represent the county wasn't clear. Gurley said the RTA asked him to speak a few weeks ago after failing to get up with Coble. And of course Coble is adamantly opposed to tax increases for anything, but that goes about double for transit.
Gurley said the Wake Commissioners won't block a vote on the transit tax forever, but will need to see "some degree of economic recovery in the area" before they'll let the 1/2-cent question go to the ballot in Wake.
Page and Pelissier made it clear they'd rather the three counties move together in concert, but if Wake won't go, Durham and Orange may go without them. Page said polling by Durham County indicated majority support for the transit tax hike, though it was less than for the tax hike for education.
In the background: The question of the temporary 1-cent sales tax surcharge at the state level, which expires at the end of June unless the General Assembly extends it. Gov. Bev Perdue, in her budget, asked for an extension — but for just 3/4-cent, not the whole 1-cent.
Republicans are in charge in the General Assembly, however, and they're vowing so far to kill the sales tax surcharge and cut budgets — including school and transportation budgets — accordingly. If they do, that could open the door to public acceptance of the need to levy 1/4-cent or 1/2-cent or 3/4ths of a cent in the Triangle to offset what the state's not provided any more. Imo.
I know y'all were planning to get to the next round of TTA transit planning sessions starting March 22, but just to whet your appetite:
I've heard it twice now from well-informed Raleigh officials that the TTA's latest scheme for getting light-rail transit through downtown Raleigh is to go OVER the Boylan Avenue Bridge. (As someone just said on an email thread, you mean under? No, I mean over.)
[TTA's response, according to a spokesman, is that they aren't proposing any single option to serve downtown Raleigh but rather a series of alternatives. "Ultimately, it’s up to elected officials and the general public to help guide the decision-making progress to come up with the best alternative for light-rail or commuter rail in downtown Raleigh."
That's why everyone who cares about this subject should attend one or more of the March workshops, the TTA says.
Starting March 22, all the various alternatives will be posted at the TTA's project website, www.ourtransitfuture.com.
The key point in all this would be to bring the light-rail line out of the main rail corridor from just east of NCSU to the proposed Union Station in downtown Raleigh, which would be located in the West Side (a.k.a. Depot) district just north of the current Amtrak station.
If the light-rail line departs the corridor (in other words, isn't running on tracks in the corridor any more), then the issue becomes:
* Does it run on tracks in a street? (Say, West Morgan Street, as the city's Passenger Rail Task Force recommends.)
* Does it go up in the air and go over at least some of the streets on a dedicated flyway?
Why does the llght-rail line need to come out of the corridor? It doesn't, and early plans called for a heavier version of rail transit (using so-called DMU cars) to stay in the corridor all the way into downtown Raleigh. But that meant light-rail would get mixed up with all the other trains using the Boylan "Wye" — mainly freight trains with priority status — calling for an expensive widening of the corridor itself.
Also, the corridor ain't exactly in the middle of downtown, which is fine for freight cars but not so hot for passenger transit.
Long story short, the thinking then became, use a true light-rail system that can run on streets as well as railroad tracks, and shoot it directly into the heart of downtown via either West Morgan Street or West Hargett Street.
Where the new new idea came from to put the light-rail system up in the air over the Boylan Avenue Bridge, I'm not sure. Something about it going faster and not getting caught in downtown traffic, is what I've heard. Anyway, if that's the solution, the rail bridge would cross over Boylan Avenue just south of Andy Leager's Boylan Ave. Brewpub — and a block or so north of Mayor Charles Meeker's house.
At this point, it should be said that whatever the TTA brings forward in March, it will be in the form of alternatives for public discussion, not a final plan. So mark your calendars. Here's the schedule from the TTA:
SPREAD THE WORD: THIRD ROUND OF TRANSIT PLANNING PUBLIC WORKSHOPS!
Seven public workshops have been scheduled for March 22 - 31 around the Triangle to present the corridors, alignments, and station locations for public feedback. The workshops will be run 'open house, drop in' style with information displays, staff to answer questions, and looping videos. There is no single presentation time. Here are the locations and venues of the third and final round of public workshops during the Alternatives Analysis:
Tue, Mar 22, 4 - 7 PM | Triangle Town Center, space 1001, next to Dillard's, Triangle Town Blvd, RALEIGH.
Wed, Mar 23, 4 - 7 PM | Durham Station Transportation Ctr, 515 W. Pettigrew St., DURHAM.
Thu, Mar 24, 4- 7 PM | The Friday Center, 100 Friday Center Drive, CHAPEL HILL.
Mon, Mar 28, 6 - 9 PM | Mt. Peace Baptist Church.1601 Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., SOUTHEAST RALEIGH.
Tue, Mar 29, 4-7 PM | Cary Senior Center in Bond Park, 120 Maury O'Dell Place, High House Rd. between Cary Parkway and NW Maynard Rd, CARY.
Wed, Mar 30, 4-7 PM | McKimmon Center, NCSU, 1101 Gorman St, RALEIGH.
Thu, Mar 31, 4-7 PM | RTP Foundation, 12 Davis Drive, RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK.
Prospects for the 1/2-cent sales tax for transit idea were batted around this week at a post-election gathering hosted by WakeUP Wake County. Between what I knew beforehand and some things people said in the course of discussion, I believe the situation is this: Two of the four Republican county commissioners-elect (Tony Gurley, Joe Bryan) have told transit supporters that they will allow a countywide referendum on the 1/2-cent tax plan next fall — assuming that polling shows it has a chance to pass. The other two (Paul Coble, Phil Matthews) are against spending for public transit. Thus, it may be up to the three remaining Democratic commissioners (Stan Norwalk, Betty Lou Ward, James West) whether the sales-tax question gets to the ballot or not.
If so, what should the Democrats do?
And what should WakeUP, for whom transit is in their DNA, do?
In my opinion — and since I was the invited speaker everyone was forced to listen to it — the transit tax should not be put to a vote in 2011. If it is, it will be defeated and the transit cause set back another, well, bunch of years. Yeah, I know, the polls might show something different. But you can't poll in advance how a referendum question will fare with the voters after they've listened to the pros and cons about it. And believe me, all they're going to hear is cons.
At best, 2011 will be a year for building (really, rebuilding — after years of neglect) the case for transit to a jaded, economically fearful public. Maybe 2012 will be better. Maybe.
Here's the point: 2011 will be dominated, through June 30 at a minimum and perhaps long into the fall, by debates about the pending, drastic and disastrous cuts to K-12 education coming out of the General Assembly.
Consider: Both houses about to be dominated by Republicans; the Republicans are promising to balance the budget without any tax hikes notwithstanding the $3 billion-plus budget gap; inevitably, school aid will be cut and teachers' jobs will be eliminated — and when it all happens, the question in Wake County will be whether and to what extent the Wake Commissioners should supply the missing funds.
The missing funds for schools, that is.
Not for transit.
And this is to say nothing about the ongoing school assignment fight, which has split the county and put most of Raleigh at war politically with most of the rest of Wake County. Not an atmosphere in which countywide consensus on anything could be readily reached.
The Republican majority on the Wake Commissioners board will be under tremendous pressure to offset at least some of the state budget cuts (also, the lost federal stimulus funds) by raising the property tax rate. I don't know if they will or not. All four ran pledging no tax increases. They even had a little jingle: "Gurley, Coble, Bryan and Matthews/They're the four who won'r raise taxes" ... or some such. How Gurley and Bryan square that with their private assurances that they'll support the transit tax, I don't know. Maybe they plan to just put the sales-tax question to voters and stand back, not really supporting it but LETTING THE VOTERS HAVE THEIR SAY.
Which will allow them to say NO WAY.
For transit supporters, any postponement is a bitter pill. I know. I am one — have been one for 20 years. Transit should've been funded in the '90s, the '00s, and it should be funded today. That's a different question, though, than whether Wake voters should be asked next year to approve a tax increase for transit while the public schools are in crisis.
Transit needs a yes vote, not a resounding rejection. But a resounding rejection is what's in store if that question goes on the ballot.
And by the way, when I say you can't poll in advance the impact of a negative campaign, I mean a negative campaign by every Republican candidate running in '11 for the Wake school board, for Raleigh City Council, and for the Cary Town Council in 2011. Plus the sure-to-be-nasty "issues" campaign that would come from millionaire Art Pope and his various organizations (John Locke, J. W. Pope Civitas Institute, etc.), all of which are — like Pope, who pays their salaries — anti-transit.
My opinion was not well-received by those in WakeUP who've been pushing to get transit back on the local agenda since 2006, when the Bush Administration derailed it. They've been promised, 2011 would be their year. But 2011 will be the year of school budget cuts, nothing else.
If the sales tax for transit goes on the Wake ballot next year, courtesy of the Republicans on the Wake Commission, it will be for the sole purpose of sending it down to defeat — along with any Democratic candidates foolish enough to support it.
Before the hearing, DOT had said the first version of the hybrid idea presented by citizens wouldn't work because the elevations required to lift the tracks over Capital Boulevard in that specific location would be too steep. A different version presented last night by lawyer Ben Kuhn, though, would push the bridge a little to the north, thus allowing a more gradual rise over an area where Capital Boulevard dips down.
Simmons told the Indy that DOT doesn't have the data it would need to assess all of the various locations where a cross-Capital bridge might go, but will work with the city to gather it in the coming weeks.
The Council should tell DOT what it wants, Simmons said at the hearing, and DOT will "faithfully try" to make it happen.
Following the session, City Councilor John Odom said the hybrid option "looked pretty good to me." Regardless of whether it survives scrutiny, however, Odom said, the NC3 option that is so unpopular with his constituents in the Five Points neighborhoods should be eliminated from consideration by DOT. Odom said he hopes the Council will join him in calling for the NC3 idea to be dropped when it decides what position(s) to take — if any — at next Tuesday's Council meeting.
Councilor Russ Stephenson, who's taken the lead in getting the hybrid idea in front of DOT, said he was pleased by Simmons' pledge "to give it full consideration." Stephenson said he concluded from what Simmons said that taking the time to study the hybrid option won't jeopardize DOT's ability to compete for federal funding down the line. Simmons did say, though, that in the new "competitive and discretionary" federal funding processes, time is of the essence — being "shovel-ready" is what helped DOT get $500 million for rail improvements between Raleigh and Charlotte, he said.
Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin said she wanted time to digest what she heard. "We have a lot of neighborhoods with a lot of legitimate concerns," she said. And while the hybrid plan looks attractive now, she pointed out, no one has assessed what its negative impacts would be to the same degree that the negatives of NC3 and the NC1 and NC2 alternatives were revealed by DOT's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS).
Baldwin and Stephenson are the Council's two at-large members, elected citywide. Odom represents District B, where Five Points is located.
Also of note:
* The Council chamber was packed to overflowing by some 300 people. Most, but not all, were from Five Points and opposed NC3. But about 20 were residents of the West at North condominium, and they submitted petitions with 65 signatures opposing the NC1 and NC2 options as proposed, since either would force the closing of West and Harrington streets in Glenwood South.
* Speaking for the city administration, Raleigh transportation planner Eric Lamb said the staff supports NC3 because the positives outweigh the negatives, unlike with NC1 or NC2. Lamb asked the Council to endorse NC3 but with one change from what DOT proposed: Instead of bridging Hargett Street over the railroad tracks, Hargett could be closed if DOT would agree to extend West Street to connect with South Saunders Street.
* Extending West Street to the south, however, would destroy the developing and affordable Rosengarten Park community, said resident Dan Meyer. The conflicts between the HSR project and city streets in the area of West and Hargett streets have not been given much attention thus far, but they're just as real as the ones in the Glenwood South area.
* A continuing theme last night: "No rush to judgment." Stephenson used that term in an interview with us Monday. Last night, Tom Worth, an attorney working with the Five Points neighborhoods, picked up on it, saying decisions about the rail alignment are "a hundred-year play at least" for the city and "there should be no rush to judgment.
* Another theme: The city and DOT have done a poor job of bringing the public into the debate over where the HSR line should go if it should go through Raleigh at all. Carole Meyre, a leader of the Don't Railroad Historic Five Points group, accused Raleigh officialdom of "treating this as a neighborhood pothole issue" instead of a major land-use and transportation decision.
Proliferating "No on NC3" signs in the Five Points neighborhoods list a 5 p.m. start tonight (Tuesday night). That's actually the time of a pre-meeting rally in Nash Square — right in front of City Hall — called by neighborhood organizers. The organizers also have a website with good information.
The Council meeting begins at 7 p.m. and will take the form of a public hearing at which residents are invited to make their views known. Thus far, the Council has taken no formal position of any of the proposed high-speed rail routes, and it's unclear whether it will do so before the official comment period on the HSR project closes September 10.
NC1/NC2-A.A. is essentially a hybrid, combining the benign parts of NC1/NC2 — the parts north of Peace Street — with the benign part of NC3 — the part south of Peace Street. A 1.200 foot railroad viaduct (bridge) would connect the two disparate sides, crossing over Capital Boulevard. The x-outs above are the problematic parts of the original NC1/NC2 alignments for which the bridge would be the replacement. The idea is explained in greater detail in this document: Waters_NC1_2_NC3_Avoidance_Alignment_FivePager.pdf
City Councilor Russ Stephenson has taken the lead on exploring the NC1/2-A.A. route, pushing to have the Council hear a report on it from city staff. Once that report was added to the agenda — city transportation staffer Eric Lamb will do the honors — suddenly the Rail Division of NC DOT wanted to be heard too, and they will be. They sent around an analysis tonight pooh-poohing 1/2-A.A.; but at first glance — to me, anyone — what DOT's engineer said seemed no more definitive about its shortcomings than the shortcomings already revealed re: NC1, NC2, and NC3.
In other words, every one of the three official HSR alignments has problems, and if one is chosen, the problems would need to be overcome. So guess what? 1-2-A.A., whose authors were still tweaking it last night, has problems too that would also need to be overcome.
Here's the DOT document: 2010-08-30_JTO-MH_Rekeweg_1_.pdf
Stephenson's point when I talked to him yesterday was that DOT and Raleigh are attempting the make "a 100-year decision" about rail transit and should take the time — and do the study — to get it right. Instead, he said, "It seems like this has been a tremendous rush to judgment so far."
A big question mark for him, Stephenson said, is how each of the proposed HSR alignments would work, or not work, in harmony with any TTA light-rail system. The Triangle Transit Authority is continuing to study its own alternative alignments through the center of Raleigh, but most of its plans would put some kind of local transit — either light-rail or diesel locomotives — on the NC1/NC2 corridor. "The question from my perspective," Stephenson said, "is whether we want to call a timeout" while city staffers do as complete an analysis as possible of the DOT's alternative routes, the TTA's alternatives, and how to get them working as a package.
He didn't answer his own question — tonight's hearing will help clarify the issues and whether more study is needed, he said.
Such a timeout could push the high-speed rail project back six months or more, Stephenson said. On the other hand, there's no funding available for it yet, and a six-month study might well not cost anything in terms of a buildout that could be many years away.
A little history. The state DOT picked a general route for the Southeast High-Speed Rail line from Richmond to Raleigh eight years ago, when nobody was paying any attention and there was no prospect of it being funded in anybody's lifetime. The general route: Right through Raleigh; details to follow (or they don't matter).
So two years ago DOT showed up at City Hall and said the specific routes they had in mind would requiring closing and/or screwing up the streets that connect Raleigh's first successfully revitalized downtown neighborhood — Glenwood South — to the second revitalizing downtown neighborhood, which is the downtown itself.
These were the so-called NC-1 and NC-2 routes, both of which followed — with slight variations — the CSX rail corridor.
No, no, no said the city planning staff, the City Council and Mayor Charles Meeker. PLEEZE consider going through Raleigh another way. They wrote an official letter to that effect.
So DOT went away and studied the city's proposed alternative, now known as the NC-3 route. It follows the Norfolk-Southern rail corridor.
A few weeks ago, DOT was back with NC-1, NC-2 and NC-3, putting Raleigh officialdom in a box. Everybody in Raleigh is "for" high-speed rail. But almost nobody's in favor of the only three options for HSR that DOT has thus far presented.
All of which is prelude to the City Council's hearing on the subject next Tuesday, Aug. 31, 6:30 pm at City Hall.
Remember, the city has already, in effect, said no to NC-1 and NC-2.
Well, last night the vote at the Five Points CAC meeting on NC-3 was 0-81, meaning zero in favor and all 81 of the folks still there three-plus hours after the start of the meeting opposed. (About 150 opponents were there altogether; everybody who left signed anti-NC-3 petitions on the way out, it seems.)
NC-3 may be better than NC-1 or NC-2 in the Glenwood South area, you see, but north of Peace Street NC-1 and NC-2 are rather benign, while NC-3 would do real damage to the neighborhoods in the Five Points area. Or so the residents there believe — and they believe it unanimously.
(Just to be polite, Five Points also voted 65-27 in favor of HSR "being constructed in the Raleigh-Triangle area." But, of course, that assumes DOT can come up with an acceptable route somewhere in the Raleigh-Triangle area. Nobody wants to be against progress, after all.)
From a standing start three weeks ago, when all of Five Points was still blissfully unaware of what DOT and the city had in mind for them, an opposition campaign has arisen and is gaining steam. And, oh, it may be worth mentioning that it's in no way partisan — it's riled-up Democrats and riled-up Republicans joining hands and wondering why the city has forsaken them.
So what will Mayor Meeker and the Council do? They've already said they don't like NC-1 or NC-2.
Will they now:
1) Relent on NC-1/NC-2, while perhaps asking DOT to consider tunneling the project or, if it stays at-grade, to let the cross streets remain open?
2) Endorse NC-3 over the growing chorus of opponents in the Five Points, Roanoke Park and Glenwood-Brooklyn neighborhoods?
3) Telll DOT that none of the three alternatives are acceptable, and that unless a better way through town can be found, either the HSR line should go around Raleigh or the city will be forced to advocate for the "no-build alternative" that, as Planning Director Mitch Silver told the CAC last night, is inherent in any transportation alternatives process.
On the periphery of the meeting, meanwhile, an unofficial "NC-4" idea was floating around in the form of a map showing HSR coming into Raleigh from the north on the CSX tracks but then cutting over to the N-S tracks via a railroad bridge/rail platform that would span Capital Boulevard. Like this:
(Or, to see it in all its glory: FINAL_TheMap_FivePager_Option1SEHSR.pdf)
If you're following along at home, the best way to get such an NC-4 alternative on the table now, it seems, would be to suggest that NC-1 or NC-2 could be acceptable if "mitigated" — that's government-speak
for why didn't we think of this in the first place? — by the addition of a cross-Capital Boulevard RR bridge.
What's interesting to me is that nobody on the city planning staff seems to know whether Raleigh took a position for, against or neutral eight years ago when DOT made the call to punch the HSR project through the center of town. Nine alternatives were studied back in 2001-2, we're told, before the "go through the middle" alignment was picked instead of, for example, using the current Amtrak route that comes to Raleigh via Rocky Mount. I'm trying to find out more about that, not that it matters much now.