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Raleigh Side of Research Triangle Cornering in on Transit

August 03, 2016

Wake County Transit Plan

Like many other cities in the Sunbelt, Raleigh and its surrounding areas have experienced continued growth in the last decade.  Already exceeding one million in population, Wake County is on track to add an additional 23,000 people a year.  It was a cause for celebration then for many when the Wake County Board of Commissioners voted in June to send the $2.3 billion Wake County Transit Plan to the November ballot.  They’ve set an ambitious goal: quadrupling the number of transit riders over the next ten years.  While connecting Wake County is the priority, there is also an emphasis on developing regional transit connections with surrounding counties (especially Durham and Orange).

Upon voter approval for a one-half percent local sales tax this November, Wake Transit would collect an estimated $1 billion within the first 10 years, starting with $78.5 million in 2017.  The projects that would be funded by the plan include drastically expanding existing bus service (especially improving links between major resource and employment centers), installing 20 miles of new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in major corridors, and setting up a 37-mile commuter rail between Raleigh and Durham.  Other sources of funding for the plan (that do not need voter approval) come from a $7 vehicle registration fee, a $3 regional registration fee increase, fares, and federal and state contributions. 

The Wake County Transit Plan took over a year to develop and relied on the consultation of more than 4,300 citizens and stakeholders via 250 community presentations and meetings.  The meetings with the public communicated the different tradeoffs that transit agencies face in the long term, such as ridership versus coverage and infrastructure versus service.  These meetings helped the agency determine to not proceed with light rail and instead focus on BRT and higher quality bus service.  The plan was cleared to take off after the North Carolina Senate voted to remove a budget provision preventing Wake County from levying a half-cent sales tax referendum.  The plan currently has the support of a wide range of companies and organizations, such as Cisco Systems and the Sierra Club, which is advantageous for the measure in November.  Numerous public information sessions are planned for the coming months, and adjustments are still being made to the transit plan based on comments and concerns. 

The measure received some high profile support when Secretary Foxx of the U.S. Department of Transportation spoke in Raleigh about the need for a more sustainable transportation system in the face of increasing congestion and mobility challenges.  WakeUP Wake County, a civic engagement organization that hosted the event at which the secretary spoke, is already an avid advocate for the transit plan.  A promising sign for the measure has been the lack of a vocal opposition.  While some have noted their concern for gentrification and public debt, an outright “No” campaign does not exist at the moment, although one could certainly crop up in the months leading up to the election.  The Wake County Taxpayers Association opposes the measure and has made reference to it in some social media posts; however they seem to be focused on other legislative activities at the moment. 

Four years ago, a poll of Wake voters found 60% willing to support a half-cent sales tax to expand and improve bus service, create commuter rail, and look at other transportation solutions.  Voters in Durham and Orange counties have already approved a half-cent sales tax to fund increased transit (including a light rail connecting UNC with Duke), each winning by about 20 points.  Wake Transit is hoping voters will follow their lead this November.   With a legislature that is very skeptical of transit (especially rail), passing this measure is crucial in getting projects off the ground regardless of state support.

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