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Public workshops beginning this week in Wake, Durham and Orange counties are part of a process for the region to again bid for funding under the federal New Starts program for transit projects.

Transit plans moving again, but Wake commissioners an obstacle 

It's a chance for a new start in the long-running soap opera about whether mass transit will ever come to the Triangle. Public workshops beginning this week in Wake, Durham and Orange counties are part of a process for the region to again bid for funding under the federal New Starts program for transit projects. They're also part of a political process aimed at building support for a half-cent sales tax dedicated to transit—a tax the voters in each county would be asked to approve.

The region's first two decades of transit planning brought only heartbreak to the principle players, including the Triangle Transit Authority and smart-growth advocates. Their first attempt at a New Starts commuter-rail project foundered in 2006 when the Bush administration decided that it wouldn't attract enough ridership after all (the "all" being a decade of prior federal support—and funding—for the project). The absence of a substantial local funding source like the sales tax also contributed to the federal rejection.

The "new" New Start, though, will be a much-improved version of the old one, its proponents say, because it envisions a mix of commuter-rail and light-rail technologies, perhaps including streetcars instead of the original plan's continuous commuter-rail line. The new plan also counts on better bus connections than were planned five years ago.

Paul Morris, president of the planning firm Greenleaf Strategies, says this "multi-modal approach" is better suited to the diverse needs of the region. It would allow transit to go where it's effective instead of confining it—as any commuter-rail technology requires—to established railroad corridors. Morris is a member of Raleigh's Passenger Rail Task Force, created by the City Council.

In general, commuter-rail trains move faster than light rail. Because they do, station stops must be farther apart, and the planners consider commuter-rail optimal for bringing passengers into and out of a central business district (downtown Raleigh, downtown Durham) at peak hours.

A commuter-rail line from Garner to Orange County, using the main freight-Amtrak corridor through Raleigh and Durham, could be established within six years, according to David King, the TTA's general manager.

Because light rail lines, including streetcars, aren't as speedy, the stations can be closer together and located in rail corridors (though conflicts with freight railroads preclude some locations) or on city streets.

The flexibility of a multi-modal approach, however, brings its own complications as to which technology and which alignments and station stops are best in a given area. The "alternatives analysis" is nearing completion in all three counties, according to county leaders, but some giant question marks remain for public debate:

  • Downtown Raleigh is the biggest problem as planners to try to figure out how to thread a light-rail or streetcar line from the main rail corridor south of town to a different rail corridor heading north. Three alternatives are proposed, two of which may involve building a second railroad bridge over South Boylan Avenue, above the existing Boylan Avenue bridge. (See "Rail route is blurry through downtown Raleigh.")

  • Triangle Town Center, the sprawling shopping mall near the intersection of Capital Boulevard and I-540, is another tricky spot because the mall is on one side of Capital Boulevard and the planned light-rail line is on the other. Planners think they've figured this one out, however, using a spur over to the mall to allow for two additional stations, one with a park-and-ride lot.

  • In Orange County, where buses rule, officials are looking at possible Bus Rapid Transit routes in the Martin Luther King Boulevard area or in the N.C. 54 corridor; the idea is to give buses their own "fixed-guideway" alignments separate from car traffic. This would be in addition to a light-rail line from the southeast corner of Orange County to downtown Durham.

  • As for light rail, a pair of stations near the state government complex in Raleigh appears more convenient for state workers than a different site called for in the old New Starts plan. The new stations would be above Peace Street on a walk-up platform and at Jones and Lane streets, replacing the existing Greyhound bus terminal.

At a meeting of the Regional Transportation Alliance this month, Durham and Orange county leaders said they may ask voters to approve the half-cent sales tax this fall. Michael Page, chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, and Bernadette Pelissier, his Orange County counterpart, said they're considering packaging the half-cent transit tax question with a proposal to add a quarter-cent sales tax for education.

The General Assembly has authorized both, but counties are legally required to have their voters' approval before enacting either one.

A major factor will be whether the General Assembly agrees with Gov. Bev Perdue's proposal to extend a portion (coincidentally, three-quarters of a cent) of a temporary 1-cent sales tax increase enacted two years ago. Thus far, the Legislature's Republican leaders have said no.

Similarly, the Republican leaders of the Wake County Board of Commissioners oppose raising taxes, and they've ruled out any voter referendum on a half-cent transit tax this year and maybe next. "Before we move forward," Wake Commissioner Tony Gurley told the RTA, "we need some degree of economic recovery in the area."

Page and Pelissier said Durham and Orange would prefer to present the issue to voters when Wake does, creating a regional referendum on a transit system that is, after all, supposed to link the three counties.

A half-cent sales tax, they noted, would raise just $5 million a year in Orange County and $17 million in Durham. The bulk of funding, about $50 million, and most of the rail line, would be in Wake.

Wake's plan for spending the $50 million is still unfinished, with an ad hoc committee of the county's 12 mayors and some other officials debating how it should be used

If Raleigh and the TTA disagree on the route, the final decision lies with members of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), made up of Wake's mayors and other elected officials. To qualify for New Starts funding, any project must be listed officially by the federally designation planning organization—in this case, CAMPO.

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