On a rainy evening last week, dozens of people crammed into the cozy Boylan Bridge Brewpub, just up the hill from the site of Raleigh's future Union Station.
The crowd was in good spirits, and not just because the beer was flowing; the event marked the kickoff of advocacy group WakeUp Wake County's fundraising efforts to get a half-cent sales tax referendum before county voters next fall, and then to get the measure—which is projected to raise $69 million a year—passed.
"Nothing will happen if we don't pass this referendum," says Karen Rindge, WakeUp's founder and executive director. "We are leading a grassroots effort."
But while the transit campaign is underway, the county has already shifted its focus away from regional rail; it's likely, in fact, that none of the money from the referendum will go toward rail in Wake County—at least not any time soon.
Wake's Transit Advisory Committee, comprising about 70 community stakeholders and elected officials, voted last week to funnel money first and foremost into Wake's beleaguered bus system. If Wake County Commissioners sign off, the county's investment in its buses would quadruple. High-capacity buses would run more frequently and cover more terrain. A bus rapid transit (BRT) system—meaning dedicated lanes and buses that have priority over other traffic—would spread across 22 miles.
The need for better buses is clear. Even so, this option moves the county away from a commuter rail system, which would have run from Garner to downtown Raleigh to Cary, before reaching a terminus at Research Triangle Park. There, it was hoped, it would eventually link up with the proposed Durham-Orange County light-rail line.
"The disadvantage for Wake is that rail doesn't happen as soon, not in the first five years or so," Rindge says.
The question, then, is whether rail delayed is rail denied—in other words, if not now, will it ever happen?
County leaders insist it will. What they're really doing, they say, is shifting from a Wake-only rail to a regional one involving four counties—Wake, Johnston, Durham and Orange—that will be paid for with federal and state dollars, not local sales taxes.
"We will be developing that rail plan as soon as we pass the referendum," promises County Commissioner Sig Hutchinson, chairman of the commission's transit committee. "Nothing is slowing us down on continuing to develop that rail plan, but the emphasis in the past has been on Wake County, and my interpretation is we need to think more regionally as we think about commuter rail."
Hutchinson says working with the surrounding counties will make the project a better sell to Congress, which would have to approve it.
"There are two things you need to get funding: a strong project and a local revenue source," says U.S. Rep. David Price, whose district covers large swaths of Wake, Orange and Durham. "I think the regional rail piece makes it so much stronger on merit. It will make it a stronger candidate for funding."
Of course, Price admits, there will be fierce competition for those federal dollars.
"I would not underestimate the challenge of keeping the funding level, given we're competing with cities around the country," Price says. "Every year, there are many, many competitors for funding. We need to really go after this and have a convincing plan."