The Wake County transit plan hinges on people turning over their ballots to vote
At the end of the ballot, after you’ve voted for the president, the vice president, governor, judges and more, you’ll find one sentence that an entire transit plan for Wake County hinges on. The ballot referendum asks voters to approve a half-cent sales tax increase to fund the $2.3 billion plan that enhances and expands bus service countywide, develops a robust, frequent network, upgrades the experience and implements a commuter rail system connecting the Triangle area.
“The average cost is $2.75 a month, the cost of a cup of coffee,” says District 1 County Commissioner Sig Hutchinson. However, the tax would generate $70 to $80 million a year to implement the plan and cover 48 percent of the costs.
Given the contentious nature of this year’s election, however, supporters are concerned the referendum will be overlooked or voters might not even show up at the polls, putting the last year’s efforts into jeopardy. In fact at one point it was unclear whether the legislature would allow it to be voted on in the first place.
“We only have one shot at it. There is no plan B,” says Hutchinson. “We are in a state where the legislature gives us the power to do this referendum, and they can also take it away.”
Growth = Congestion
Wake County is projected to double in size in the next 35 years; and advocates emphasize the need to implement a flexible and rapid approach to public transit in order to meet the needs of the city.
“Rapid is essential to our increasing population; we’re projected to continue to be a high-growth market,” says Joe Milazzo, Executive Director of the Regional Transportation Alliance.
“The plan will triple our current level of bus service, expand bus rapid transit to four major corridors, and provide 37 miles of commuter rail service from Garner to Durham, with stops at NC State, Cary, Morrisville and RTP,” says Mary-Ann Baldwin, Executive Director of the Holt Brothers Foundation and GoTriangle Board Member. “Fifty percent of residents will be within a half mile of a bus stop, and 70 percent of businesses will be within a half mile — a vast improvement from where we stand now. We’ll also see more frequent bus service, expanded hours (up to 19 hours daily) and weekend service.”
About 75 people representing businesses, key stakeholders (such as RTP, RDU and NC State), municipalities and organizations met over the course of a year to build consensus for a new Wake County transit plan, including unanimous approval by the Wake County Board of Commissioners.
“This is the first time that we have a transit plan that has been approved by all counties and has broad support. It was initiated by the Wake County commissioners, both by democrats and republicans, and it demonstrates bipartisan support,” says Milazzo. However, those with reservations about the plan, including some members of the African-American community concerned with gentrification, voiced a need for accountability and transparency from the city to ensure the plan benefits everyone equally. Other opponents criticize the commuter rail portion of the plan as expensive and wasteful.
“We feel this is a plan for everybody,” says Hutchinson. “You have citizens who need this transportation, who don’t have an automobile to drive, senior citizens or disabled people. Then you have Millennials, who don’t want to drive, and empty nesters that want a different lifestyle. And, then there are those who don’t want to commute anymore.”
Transforming the Future
Beyond addressing the public’s needs, an improved transit system offers substantial economic benefits. “More access to jobs for more people, ability to grow our employment base, attract major companies, reduce future congestion,” lists Bill King, Senior Director of Economic Development and Planning of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance.
“This plan will create new jobs during construction and implementation. It will alleviate congestion and improve air quality. It will help us attract technology workers and Millennials,” says Baldwin. “Transit connects people to jobs and schools. We’ll also see new development centered on transit corridors, expanding our tax base and guiding our growth. There are a lot of pluses.”
However, without a local funding source it will be difficult to move forward with the plan. And, will it be hard to sell the public on an additional tax increase no matter how small?
“We hope that people are taking the time to study the plan and what it will bring to Wake County as a whole,” says King. “This could be a really transformative moment for the Triangle and county.”