Elections Finance Triangle NC

In North Carolina’s Triangle, the Passage of a Sales Tax Increase in Durham is Just the First Step

» A 30-year plan to bring increased bus service and three new rail lines to the Research Triangle gets off to a promising start with an election in Durham.

In 2000, North Carolina’s two largest metropolitan regions each planned big transit improvements, and each had received preliminary approval to do so from the Federal Transit Administration.The Triangle’s leaders wanted to build a diesel multiple unit-powered regional rail line connecting Durham and Raleigh while Charlotte’s elected officials planned an electric light rail line linking downtown with its southern suburbs.

Ten years later, Charlotte’s Blue Line has been up and running for almost four years, attracting higher than expected ridership. The Triangle’s efforts were flummoxed in November 2005 by an FTA ruling that the regional rail project was not cost effective, and the project was cancelled.

Yet the passage yesterday of a half-cent sales tax increase dedicated to transit in Durham County offers strong evidence that the region’s electorate is ready to invest in new public transportation options — the referendum passed with a large 60% majority in approval. Durham’s endorsement of the transit improvement program, like similar efforts in cities from Los Angeles to Denver, provides clear evidence that voters are willing and even excited to pay higher taxes in exchange for tangible improvements in transportation.* If in the U.S. Congress future funding for mobility remains tenuous at best, local level support for such policies is clear.

For the Triangle, this is the first step towards the completion of what will not only be a vast upgrade over current transit offerings in the region but also a significant improvement on the 2000 regional rail plan.

Triangle leaders have learned from Charlotte’s success. Realizing that the FTA would be unwilling to commit to a project without a stronger demonstration of local funding efforts, politicians pushed the North Carolina State Assembly to allow counties to submit sales tax increases to their voters, an option that had been reserved for Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County until 2009. Charlotte’s half-cent sales tax provided a quarter of the light rail line’s cost, while the Triangle’s 2000 plan could cover less than 10% of costs with local revenues, which came from a tax on rental cars and vehicle registrations.

Durham (population 270,000) is the first of the three Triangle core counties to put a transit sales tax referendum up to voters; Wake County (whose 900,000 population includes the cities of Raleigh and Cary) and Orange County (130,000 inhabitants, many of whom are in Chapel Hill) are likely to follow up next year now that the transit plan has received its first public backing. Each county will receive improvements roughly in proportion to the taxes locals pay; if one county’s voters reject the referendum, the other counties will keep their revenues and continue work on their own projects. (Update: Durham County Board members may have said they will not levy the tax unless Wake and or Orange County does as well.)

The implementation plan, developed by Triangle Transit the Triangle Regional Transit Program, will be implemented over the next thirty years as long as tax revenues come in as expected. It will offer big improvements in bus service soon and new rail links beginning a decade or so from now.**

Upgrading the region’s bus network is a top priority and is the ideal first step towards a big investment in fixed-guideway transit. Charlotte, which substantially increased bus services once its half-cent sales tax was approved in 1998, more than doubled its daily transit ridership over ten years, mostly thanks to bus riders (though the light rail project helped as well). Some of the $17.2 million in sales tax receipts Durham expects to collect annually beginning in April 2013 2012 will immediately go to 25,000 additional annual bus service hours, with another 25,000 new hours planned by 2015 2013. This represents a 28% increase over current service levels and it will allow 15-minute peak frequencies on several routes. Similar improvements are planned for Orange and Wake Counties if and when their voters approve their respective referenda. (The Town of Chapel Hill wants to use some of its future funds to pay for a bus rapid transit project along Martin Luther King Boulevard, its primary north-sout thoroughfare, by 2017.)

In the meantime, Durham and the rest of the region will continue their work on the long-term fixed-guideway rail projects that are the headliners here. In the 2000 plan, the whole point was the intercity link between Raleigh and Durham; in the past few years, Triangle planners decided to realign — and broaden — their focus. Not only would a commuter rail line running at limited frequencies be developed to connect the two big downtowns by 2018, but two light rail lines sharing parts of the same corridor will run from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to Durham and from suburban Cary to northeast Raleigh, via that city’s downtown.

Unlike the regional rail plan, which would have had twelve stations spread across 28 miles of service — more like commuter rail than urban service — the two light rail lines will have a total of 38 stations along 35 miles of service, meaning most people along the route will be within walking distance of a stop. In addition, the light rail lines will run partially in the existing railroad right-of-way (as would have the regional rail plan) but also within street medians in some urban sections, such as the newly developed Erwin Road near Duke University Hospital and N.C. 54 in and around Chapel Hill’s new urbanist Meadowmont development. Street alignments are generally cheaper and more pedestrian accessible than their peers in independent rights-of-way.

Together, these projects would attract roughly 32,000 daily riders by 2035 at a cost of $3.5 billion, thus making it far easier and more reliable to get around these cities by transit.

Instead of rushing to complete the rail connections as soon as possible, the plan is designed to build up a reserve fund for capital costs and slowly pass through the FTA’s grant process. This is an appropriate response to unexpected changes in the economy and the delays that are likely to be encountered when dealing with Washington. Thus the 2025 completion dates for the light rail projects may seem far off but they are realistic.

In order to sponsor these projects, regional officials are counting on the passage of the sales tax referenda in each of the three Triangle counties. They will also use a $10 vehicle registration fee and rental car tax (both already in place), as well as 50% capital program support from Washington and 25% support from the State of North Carolina (roughly what Charlotte received for its light rail project). Collectively, the three counties would locally raise more than $2 billion in year-of-expenditure dollars by 2035 (Durham County, for instance, will collect about $730 million), enough to pay for the local share of all of these projects and the operations costs not only of the rail lines but also of the improved bus network.

Compared with the 2000 program, this is a far more comprehensive set of improvements that will do more to change the transit access of the typical resident of the area — especially since much of the funding is designed for bus service, which was ignored in the previous plan. Despite the fact that they will attract new riders into the transit system, the rail services as currently proposed are not perfect. One hopes that the long planning process will allow further refinements that ensure that the program is as cost-effective and traveler-oriented as possible.

The biggest trouble with the plan, like the previous one, is that it attempts to impose what is effectively radial transit on a multipolar region whose most prominent employment center is actually a series of isolated office blocks in the zone between Durham and Raleigh, the Research Triangle Park (RTP). Though RTP has been the region’s growth generator for decades, its radically suburban form makes it difficult to envision efficient transit there.

Meanwhile, there is relatively little commuting between Raleigh and Durham. The cities are too far apart to be true suburbs of one another; most people who work in Downtown Durham live in Durham County and most people who work in Downtown Raleigh live in Wake County. This means that the $650 million commuter rail line expected to pass through RTP and between Durham and Raleigh will have limited value — this was, after all, the problem with the 2000 regional rail proposal.

For the same reasons, the new focus on light rail connecting Chapel Hill to Durham and Wake County’s suburbs to Downtown Raleigh is much more reasonable. There has been significant growth in both residential and worker populations in downtown Durham and Raleigh since 2000, so there is both demand and interest in getting into these cities more easily. Connections to Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University, which have a collective student body and staff of more than 100,000 (not including their medical centers), are likely to make the rail services quite popular, especially for people who live nearby but cannot afford parking in expensive university lots.

Nonetheless, the access provided to the respective downtowns is weak according to current plans. While Durham’s downtown will be within half a mile of two stops, no station will be directly next to the city center; in Raleigh, a lively debate this summer over the appropriate alignment for rail through downtown resulted in a compromise that puts some much of the business district a full mile away from the nearest station. Meanwhile, while the UNC Hospital is at the terminus of the proposed Durham-Chapel Hill light rail line, the main sections of the University and Chapel Hill’s downtown are both about a mile away. These could be fatal flaws in terms of attracting ridership.

Just as problematic is the choice of light rail for the Durham-to-Chapel Hill corridor. The alternatives analysis completed for the line suggests that a true bus rapid transit alternative with an independent guideway would actually attract more total riders at a far lower cost, with only slightly slower travel times. How is this possible, when studies have shown that more commuters will ride rail than bus when similar services are offered? Because the analysis included the possibility of interlining local bus routes onto the fixed-guideway for parts of their route (see map below from the study). This would effectively make travel faster and more reliable even for people whose origins and destinations are not directly along the fixed guideway line.

But local officials have recommended light rail, primarily because of its perceived transit-oriented development potential. This may be a short-sighted decision, since it denies the conclusion that overall transit ridership would be higher with an interlined system. But it also reflects the fact that the route includes several stations in greenfields (at Leigh Village and Gateway) that are poised for significant growth if developers heed the call. Would they do so with a BRT system?

One additional point: If the commuter rail project and light rail projects are completed, they should be developed jointly, not independently. The current proposal recommends four rail tracks in some sections of the Durham-to-Raleigh corridor to allow for two light rail tracks and two shared between the commuter rail line, Amtrak, and freight trains. The section of line between the Ninth Street and Alston Avenue Stations in Durham, for instance, would require the installation of two new light rail tracks and a new commuter rail track (there is currently only one track there). This is overkill considering the proposed train frequencies (maximum 10-minute headways) and will cost more than is necessary.

With the advent of positive train control, the physical separation into different corridors between light rail and freight trains will no longer be necessary. Were the Triangle granted a waiver from the current Federal Railroad Administration rules, it could use tram-train vehicles for its light rail routes and use the same tracks as the commuter rail, thus reducing the necessary expenditures in the shared portions of the line.

Despite these objections, the overall transit plan for the Triangle appears mostly well thought-through. The light rail routes would run through the densest sections of the area and would stop at most major destinations. For a quickly growing region with few public transportation options today, that’s great news.

Thanks to the efforts of Durham’s citizens yesterday, the plan is also actually fundable. Simply proposing a tax cannot be enough to have it approved, of course. Like other cities that have passed transit taxes, Durham benefited from the near-universal support from public officials and the creation of an active supporter group promoting a clear, exciting plan. Wake and Orange Counties will need similar efforts to make the full regional plan possible.***

Bottom image: Interlining BRT on Durham-Chapel Hill high capacity transit project, from Our Transit Future

Update, 11 November 2011: I was contacted by an official who noted that the tram-train idea would be impossible considering current rules of the North Carolina Railroad (a private company 100% owned by the state), which owns the track. The company has so far been unwilling to consider having light rail run along its tracks. Thus the issue here is not only the FRA but also the opinions of the host railroad.

* This is apparently not true in suburban Cleveland, where two separate efforts to maintain bus service were roundly defeated in votes yesterday. But it was true in Vancouver, Washington, where voters endorsed a sales tax for transit, and in Cincinnati, where an effort to block work on the streetcar was ignored.

** Though the rail system will be developed by Triangle Transit, a regional authority that operates intercity buses, Cary, Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh each have their own bus services that at least for now will remain separate. These agencies will receive proportional tax funds to improve operations and will be expected to coordinate with the rail services once they are running.

*** Feel free to blame the length of this article on the fact that I am a native of Durham.

High-Speed Rail North Carolina Richmond Triangle NC

Southeast High-Speed Rail Releases Detailed Proposals for Raleigh-Richmond Corridor

» Project would halve travel time between the two state capitals, but it’s not yet an extension of the Northeast Corridor towards the south.

Yesterday, the Southeast High-Speed Rail Corridor planning group (SEHSR) — a project run by the North Carolina Department of Transportation in association with the State of Virginia — released its draft environmental impact study (DEIS) for the 162-mile Raleigh-Richmond passenger rail route. The DEIS will undergo public review over the next two months in preparation for an eventual grant submission to the Federal Railroad Administration for up to three billion dollars to pursue the completion of this project over the next decade.

SEHSR is not proposing true high-speed rail: its trains will be limited to 110 mph, be powered by diesel locomotives, and be limited to single tracks along several route segments. But the project is nonetheless quite ambitious. Whereas current Amtrak service between the two capitals takes almost four hours, this project would reduce travel times to two hours by rerouting trains onto a more direct route and speeding travel. Whereas current service averages around 47 mph, the proposal would allow average speeds of 86 mph, a vast improvement.

If fully implemented, the states would offer four daily round trips between Raleigh and Washington, D.C. along the corridor. A final decision about exact route choices will be made next year.

Neither the Federal Railroad Administration nor the States of North Carolina or Virginia have yet committed significant funding to the completion of this project, though the two states did receive a total of $620 million from Washington in January thanks to the ARRA stimulus bill. Those funds will allow the construction of a third track between Richmond and Washington, D.C. and allow North Carolina to increase speeds to 90 mph between Raleigh and Charlotte, the state’s largest city.

SEHSR’s long-term plans would reduce travel times along the 450-mile route between Charlotte and Washington to between 6h10 and 6h50, down from 9h40 on the Carolinian today (though the Crescent runs a separate route in 8h07). The primary time savings in the medium-term would come from the implementation of this Raleigh to Richmond corridor. A direct route between Raleigh and Charlotte (trains between the cities now take an round-about route to serve Durham and Greensboro), long mentioned as a possibility to speed trains to Atlanta, would be similarly effective, but that project is far off.

Today, Amtrak Carolinian trains travel along a circuitous route through Rocky Mount, North Carolina between Raleigh and Richmond. In this study, SEHSR has proposed moving most of those trains to the 35-mile-shorter CSX-owned alignment that parallels U.S. 1. The states hope to reach agreement with the freight rail company to increase speeds to 110 mph by eliminating all grade crossings along the route (requiring the closing or bridging of more than 100 crossings) and by including five-mile siding tracks every ten miles along the single-track corridor.

This closing of the corridor to vehicle traffic would increase safety and allow for the eventual conversion to electric locomotion if warranted. The report states that “The current designs will not preclude conversion to electricity in the future, thus allowing higher speeds.” Such an investment would basically mean the extension of the Northeast Corridor south from Washington — and indeed, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman suggested last year that electrification from Washington to Richmond was one of his top priorities. That possibility, however, remains far in the future; it’s not included in the funding estimates here. And though this more limited proposal has merit, it is in competition with dozens of other proposals from around the country, so it has no guarantee of being funded anytime soon.

Even if funded, the SEHSR project does face a number of additional obstacles. In other states, CSX has proven to be a mediocre partner; after weeks of negotiations, the company finally agreed to let New York State use its corridor between Albany and Buffalo for new rail service, but it has yet to endorse the 110 mph trains that the state wants. Similarly, CSX demanded a large insurance policy from the State of Florida for the construction of the Orlando-area Sunrail line. Will North Carolina and Virginia be manhandled similarly?

Meanwhile, there are a number of alternative route alignments for this corridor that could pit local interests against statewide needs. In downtown Raleigh, two separate corridors are being considered; one would cost far more but the other may produce too much damage to a growing center city.

In recent years, though, both of these Mid-Atlantic states have been good custodians of their intercity rail networks; they’re likely to see this project through eventually. That is, as long as the federal government reaffirms its commitment to rail through continued annual appropriations, no sure thing in these cutback-ridden times.

Image above: Route options for Raleigh-Richmond Corridor of Southeast High-Speed Rail, from SEHSR

Commuter Rail Triangle NC Urbanism

How Viable is Commuter Rail for North Carolina’s Triangle?

» North Carolina Railroad studies new commuter rail system in the state’s center, but its ridership estimates may be unrealistic considering the region’s demographics.

The fastest-growing tech hubs in the United States are unified in their sprawling nature and provide definitive proof for at least one uncomfortable truth: the country’s smartest inhabitants aren’t necessarily rushing off to urban hubs. Despite the recent increase of wealthy, young, white inhabitants in many central cities — a reverse “white flight” — the overall trend suggests that the fastest-growing high-education metropolitan areas continue to be places with low overall density.

According to a new report from the Brookings Institution, of the country’s 100 largest regions, 28 feature both high growth rates and high levels of educational achievement (what it categorizes as “Next Frontier” and “New Heartland”). Of those 28 regions, only two had higher transit use than the average of the 100 largest metros nationwide and only four had fewer people per capita who drive alone to work. Meanwhile, according to the “Sprawl Index,” calculated by Smart Growth America, only a third of those 28 regions were less sprawling than the average, based on street connectivity, centeredness, mixed-uses, and density.

(These data are sortable in a table at the conclusion of this article.)

In other words, while central cities like New York and San Francisco may be coming back with an influx of new inhabitants, that growth has been overshadowed by increases in sprawling areas.

Chief among them is North Carolina’s Triangle, presided over by the state capital in Raleigh, surrounded by the smaller cities of Durham, Cary, and Chapel Hill. With a population of 1.8 million, the region is the third most sprawling of all American regions says Smart Growth America, with the lowest levels of land use mixity in the country. According to the Brookings data, which refers specifically to the (arguably more sprawling) Raleigh-Cary section of the region, eighty percent of its workers drive to work alone, with only one percent using transit. It has increased in population by 35.4% since 2000.

Now the North Carolina Railroad, a state-controlled organization that owns the state’s primary rail line, has released a study in which it estimates ridership along a potential commuter rail line that could stretch from Durham to Raleigh, via the suburban jobs-heavy Research Triangle Park, and then onwards in both directions as far as Goldsboro to the southeast and Greensboro to the west. Trains would run in each direction every forty minutes, though only during rush hours. The document, a follow-up to a capacity study completed in 2008 for the same corridor, projects as many as 4,600 daily riders if the system were activated today. By 2022, it suggests a daily ridership of more than 11,000 — enough to make it the country’s 13th-heaviest used commuter rail line, quite an achievement for the nation’s 29th-largest metropolitan area.

The N.C. Railroad suggests that a 50-mile starter line between West Durham and Clayton, via downtown Raleigh, would attract the majority of riders.

Both Raleigh and Durham are considering the implementation of their own electric light rail systems that would eventually connect. Raleigh’s line could extend from Cary to northeast Raleigh, via downtown and North Carolina State University; Durham’s would link east Durham with the University of North Carolina, via downtown and Duke University. Those light rail investments, which would in some places follow the same corridor as the commuter line, lack a funding source at the moment, though the region’s counties are considering bringing a 1/2-cent sales tax to vote in November 2011.

But this proposed commuter rail line would be far cheaper to implement, costing only about $250 million to build, as compared to the more than one billion dollars that would be necessary for the light rail links.

The Triangle is not a metropolitan region in the traditional sense, with a heavily populated and jobs-rich core. Rather, it’s a highly diffuse, polycentric place, with several jobs cores and no large neighborhoods made up primarily of apartment housing — in other words, it doesn’t have many areas ready-made for transit. The map below shows how jobs are spread out across the region in relation to the proposed commuter rail corridor.

The question is how or even if fixed-guideway transit can be made to work in a place like this. Efficient public transportation is almost always highly dependent on heavily concentrated neighborhoods to which people can walk from stations. Though there are plenty examples of commuter lines with park and rides on one end, almost all rail line users from Boston to Portland have a work destination within walking distance of a station. Can a region like the Triangle adapt to an improved transit system? Does its existing commuting patterns make the use of anything other than the private vehicle possible?

What seems clear is that the N.C. Railroad’s estimates of 11,000 daily riders by 2022 is unrealistic. With just four stations between downtown Raleigh and downtown Durham, the line would feature a very small total area within walkable distance of stations, reducing the potential rider base. Moreover, neither downtown is particularly large and the Raleigh station wouldn’t be directly adjacent to the jobs center. To make matters more difficult, the primary residence of most of the workers in each downtown is that respective city, not the other one. And neither south Durham nor North Raleigh, both areas of huge housing growth in recent years, would get stations.

It’s worth considering how the proposed system compares to similar routes around the country. Austin’s new 32-mile Red Line commuter line, which offers just nine round-trips a day, all at rush hour, has been attracting around 1,000 daily users since it opened. Salt Lake City’s FrontRunner North, which shuttles commuters 44 miles into downtown from Ogden, is now carrying 5,000 people a day, with all-day two-way service. Could the Triangle, with more spread-out employment than those two regions, get more riders?

Even if the answer is no, the goal of commuter railroad operations between Raleigh and Durham — something equivalent to more frequent Amtrak — isn’t an inherently bad idea. Any track improvements would aid in the movement of all intercity trains using the corridor. At a far lower cost than light rail, commuter rail would offer mobility between the region’s big cities, opening up the possibility of getting between the downtowns far more easily than is possible today.

In addition, investing in commuter rail along the Raleigh-Durham corridor would open up the possibility of investing in light rail elsewhere. Durham Mayor Bill Bell has noted his fear that more frequent intercity trains would doom any hope of light rail between these two cities, but perhaps that’s a good thing — this route isn’t necessarily ideal for urban rail. It passes through the sprawling Research Triangle Park, whose suburban office park layout makes it hopeless for fixed guideway transit. Meanwhile, the densest non-downtown areas of both Durham and Raleigh aren’t on the line, meaning that ridership would be inherently limited compared to other potential corridors.

Instead of spending big bucks on electric rail on this corridor, both Durham and Raleigh could concentrate on serving their own, potentially more rider-heavy lines. Most people who work in downtown Raleigh will continue to live in or near Raleigh — and the same can be said for Durham. The transit system should be designed to reflect that fact.

Commute Sheds for Downtown Raleigh and Durham
Sprawl, Commuting Habits, and Growth in the Nation’s Big, Growing, and Educated Metros
MetroSprawl Score% Drove Alone% TransitChange in Pop Since 2000
National Average10074.07.09.2
Colorado Springs124.477.21.614.4
Des Moines80.51.615.1
Kansas City91.682.21.58.6
Salt Lake City110.975.33.314.7

“Sprawl Index” data from Smart Growth America; lower number indicates more sprawl. Data on commuting habits and growth from the Brookings Institution. Images above: (1) Potential Central North Carolina commuter rail, from North Carolina Railroad; (2) Employment density and home locations of workers in North Carolina’s Triangle, from Census data

Light Rail Triangle NC

North Carolina’s Triangle Questions How Best to Connect a Multipolar Region

» With several urban cores and a major research park at the center, how would fixed-guideway transit work?

North Carolina’s Triangle is known as one of the most economically vibrant areas of the country. Its cities are growing rapidly and their inhabitants, attracted by several prominent universities, are some of the smartest in the country. Decades of population expansion, however, haven’t been followed by serious efforts to concentrate growth around better transit. Indeed, the region is sprawling more than almost any other, with the vast majority of new housing growth in new low-density subdivisions on the margins of the area’s four biggest cities: Raleigh, Durham, Cary, and Chapel Hill. Though downtowns have experienced significant regeneration over the past several years, the lack of efficient transit alternatives has handicapped hopes for further densification.

With more than one million inhabitants and increasing congestion on the area’s most-trafficked arteries, leaders have renewed their hopes of building a rail system that would connect neighborhoods designated for multi-story development. Recent decisions by the state that allow for local sales taxes and a willingness among municipal authorities to push for citizen referendums over the next few years may make such a network possible.

Yet, with several urban cores and the job-filled Research Triangle Park at the center of the region, politicians from a variety of interest groups will have a fight on their hands as they determine how to distribute a limited set of tax revenues. There is no overarching regional authority that runs the panoply of local bus systems today, nor a regional decision-making body. There are serious disagreements about where job growth should be centered. These obstacles will ensure that the implementation of a high-quality rapid transit system in the Triangle doesn’t come easily.

North Carolina leaders came close to moving forward with the construction of a diesel multiple unit line between downtown Durham and North Raleigh in 2004; at that time, the Triangle Transit Authority (now Triangle Transit) was leading the process, had developed an $860 million plan, and had acquired the majority of the right-of-way along the corridor. But in 2005, the Federal Transit Administration significantly altered its rule process for receiving New Starts grants, basically eliminating the plan from consideration and shutting it down. The lack of a strong local tax source was part of the problem, though so were lower-than-necessary ridership estimates.

Leaders came together two years later to form a committee to resuscitate the plan and in 2008 produced a 25-year, $8.2 billion investment project that would include a light rail line between Durham and Chapel Hill, a diesel multiple unit link between Durham and North Raleigh, express buses on the most congested roadways, and streetcar or bus circulators in the urban cores. At the same time, the North Carolina Railroad, which controls most of the right-of-way between Durham and Raleigh, began planning a one billion dollar commuter rail plan of its own that would extend from Greensboro to Goldsboro, duplicating most of the Triangle route with service at rush hours.

Meanwhile, in 2009, the state legislature approved a law that allows Durham, Orange, and Wake Counties — the core of the Triangle region — to increase sales taxes by 0.5% for transportation purposes, after a citizen referendum. This month’s announcement that the FTA would alter its New Start guidelines to incorporate livability and reduce their focus on cost-effectiveness, making the Triangle’s project again appropriate for federal funding, have added to the momentum.

With a renewed sense that a rail project is possible in the Triangle and an unprecedented opportunity to raise funds, local politicians are talking seriously about how to move forward. Despite the fact that the mayors of Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh are all pro-transit, they have divergent views about which corridors should be first put in service. The county commissioners of the three counties have their own priorities, as do the leaders of the region’s other cities.

If Triangle counties agree to hold a referendum on a sales tax for public transportation in November 2011, as now seems likely, they would be able to get the first lines in operation in about a decade — as long as the public agrees to the deal. Sales tax receipts would be distributed respectively by county, meaning that Wake County (with 870,000 inhabitants), which includes Raleigh and Cary, would get the majority of expenditures. Smaller Durham and Orange Counties (270,000 and 130,000 people, respectively) would be able to spend far less. The rejected earlier transit plan would have had no provisions of spending equity based on county population.

Wake County politicians have interpreted these rules to argue for investing first in a line between Northwest Cary and North Raleigh, through downtown Raleigh and the state capitol complex. They hope to build that 17-mile corridor, which would include nine stations, by 2019. Raleigh leaders have rejected the cheaper diesel multiple unit standard previously promoted and replaced it with light rail, which they consider a better technology.

Meanwhile, Durham and Orange Counties, which share a federally-designated metropolitan planning organization (Raleigh and Cary share another one), are holding discussions about a light rail line between downtown Durham and the University of North Carolina, via southwest Durham; this 15.8-mile project would open by 2023. Chapel Hill, closer to Durham both literally and politically (both are far further to the left than relatively conservative Raleigh), wants better commutes to Duke University and Durham’s 9th Street shopping area, as well as the rapidly improving downtown. South Durham, which has been the focus of rapid, spread-out growth and huge retail complexes, is left out of the picture, reasonably.

In other words, the Research Triangle Park may be excluded from initial investments, even though it is the region’s economic core and the source of its prosperity. Politicians in Raleigh and Chapel Hill argue that its suburban form would make transit there inefficient and poorly used, and they’re probably right. Durham leaders aren’t so sure, since they want a quick connection to Raleigh and most of the Park lies within Durham County borders. But it is true that there are probably more opportunities for redevelopment along the Durham-Chapel Hill line than along the Durham-Cary corridor.

The 16-mile connection between downtown Durham and Northwest Cary would come later — perhaps by 2025. This project would include an improved connection to RDU airport, though there would be no direct service. Ten years later, regional officials want to have lines spewing 9 miles southwest from Cary to Apex and 8 miles north from Raleigh to Wake Forest. Whether any of these lines could be implemented realistically considering the financial limitations of a 1/2-cent sales tax is unclear, especially since a major portion of revenues would go to expanded bus operations.

After all, Charlotte’s Mecklenberg County (population 900,000), which put a similar financing system in place in 1998, has only been able to build one 9.6-mile light rail line and won’t even begin construction on its second corridor until 2011 at the earliest.

Apart from questions of whether Triangle politicians are being realistic in their ambitions — or whether the lines they’re proposing make much economic sense, considering the region’s sprawling nature, limited current bus use, and the weak attraction of the existing urban cores — is why politicians have made a concerted choice to ignore the multipolar identity of the Triangle and instead pretend that it is split into two separate regions. At their most basic, the current proposals would provide Raleigh a light rail line heading in from its western and northern suburbs, and Durham would get a light rail line to the southwest. The goal espoused by planners in the early 2000s of connecting the region’s two largest cities has been laid by the wayside, reserved for a second phase.

In some ways, this downtown-centric policy makes a lot of sense: transit works best when it is oriented towards a job-heavy center city, since it can compete with congested routes and save commuters the cost of downtown parking. But the Triangle is unique, lacking a clear core, with few of the dense in-town neighborhoods most likely to attract transit users and with a large number of jobs in the sprawling auto-oriented research park. As a result, the two lines proposed for initial service probably won’t get many riders, at least compared to peer systems around the country.

An approach aimed directed at combating the area’s multipolar form may have been more appropriate, starting with the Raleigh-Durham inter-city line as originally designed. The most heavily used roadway in the region is I-40 between Raleigh and South Durham; the county-centric proposals wouldn’t address this corridor at all.

Or — hard as it is to admit for this native of Durham — perhaps the Triangle is simply not ready for rail rapid transit. How will trains in any of the corridors mentioned here ever attract adequate use when the biggest core, Raleigh’s downtown, only has 40,000 jobs and just a few thousand residents? When will the trains ever get the kind of traffic that necessitates their higher capacity compared to buses? By comparison, Charlotte’s center city has more than 10,000 inhabitants and 80,000 jobs — and it’s relatively small from the perspective of transit-encouraging cores.

If implemented with rapid lanes on the freeways and dedicated rights-of-way in the downtowns, the region could probably get a whole lot more for its money with an upscale bus rapid transit service. Lines could run directly between Raleigh and Chapel Hill or between Durham and North Raleigh without the inconvenient and time-consuming detours that will limit potential traffic.

But I could be wrong. The region is clearly interested in spending its own funds on these transit projects. The cities do need some kind of structural device to organize and encourage dense development; bus rapid transit wouldn’t do that nearly as well as would light rail. These cities have been sprawling so much that only a radical investment may help them reverse course. Perhaps it’s time to take a chance.

Finance North Carolina Triangle NC

North Carolina State Senate Moves Ahead on Local Sales Taxes

Following an April vote in the House, the Senate appears to be close to allowing the Triangle and Triad to fund new transit systems.

After years of controversy revolving around the regressive nature of sales tax increases, the North Carolina State Senate yesterday tentatively approved a measure that would allow citizens in the Triangle and Triad metropolitan areas the right to vote to increase their local sales taxes by a 1/2¢ on every dollar to pay for transit improvements. Mecklenburg County, which includes the state’s largest city Charlotte, has been taxing itself a similar amount since 1998 after the legislature allowed it and it alone to expand its tax base. The bill, if approved later this week as expected, will also allow other less urban areas in the state to push up sales taxes by 1/4¢ to fund transportation.

The measure passed the state house in April and will let the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill in the Triangle and Greensboro and Winston-Salem in the Triad construct ambitious new transit networks, but only if the citizenry of their surrounding counties can be cajoled into voting for tax increases. The state will require all counties wishing to fund transit to conduct local referenda before the sales taxes can be implemented. Votes are expected in 2010 if the economy improves sufficiently.

A DMU regional rail system connecting Raleigh and Durham came close to receiving federal funds in the early 2000s, but it was shot down because of Washington’s strenuous cost-efficiency regulations. A new regional advisory commission released a report in 2008 proposing an even more ambitious project, with lines reaching 50 miles through the Triangle region. New streetcars could serve the downtowns of the two inner cities, and many more buses would extend through what is one of America’s fastest growing regions. A 1/2¢ sales tax would be an efficient way of funding the new network.

Meanwhile, Greensboro and Winston-Salem have been planning a new light rail connector between each downtown, though their project is not as far advanced. The new tax, if approved, would allow planning and construction to go ahead.

Each region, however, is sprawling and will have a hard time meeting the cost-effectiveness guidelines required by the Feds because of likely low ridership compared to proposed lines in other cities. This barrier could be insurmountable unless they significantly reform their land use policy to encourage dense, station-oriented growth. Without money from Washington, both the Triangle and the Triad will be doomed to smaller and less effective transit lines.