News: CJ Exclusives

Transit Backers Urge Big Sell Job

Advisory commission want bold, far-reaching recommendations

Members of a special transit advisory commission used their final scheduled meeting recently to stress the urgency of approving a bold set of transportation recommendations for the Triangle that includes an expansive rail-transit system.

“The fact of the matter is, we’ve got to put something forward that is so compelling that the government leaders will buy in and take it to the voters, and they’ll accept it, and say we’ve got to do this,” said Bill Cavanaugh, cochairman of the Special Transit Advisory Commission and moderator of the five-hour meeting in Research Triangle Park on Feb. 29.

The most vocal members encouraged the group not to shy away from including far-reaching recommendations in a final consensus report to be submitted to the area’s two metropolitan planning organizations in late March.

“Don’t water it down,” said Cal Horton, a former Chapel Hill town manager. “We need to take the political heat for this. If we don’t, then the MPOs will be less inclined to do so.”

Dan Coleman, a member of the Livable Streets Partnership, used the phrase “the fierce urgency of now” to encourage his fellow commission members to be bold in recommending a roadmap for transit needs.

“I don’t want us to dismiss the role that our report has to play in the marketing of this issue,” Coleman said. “With gas going where it is, and with the press following what we’re doing, I think that if we don’t set the course when this report comes out, we will have lost a golden opportunity.”

The commission, which began meeting in May, is made up of 29 Triangle residents, many from environmental, business, and civic organizations. As part of a broader Regional Transit Vision Plan spearheaded by the metropolitan planning organizations, the commission is responsible for taking a “fresh look” at transit and suggesting investments for the future.

The commission has put forward a number of recommendations, including enhanced bus services and a 56-mile rail-transit line between Raleigh, Durham, Cary, and Chapel Hill.

Members have suggested funding sources such as a half-cent sales tax increase, a doubling of the current vehicle registration fee, and tax increment financing to handle the project’s estimated $2 billion price tag. In addition, the commission hopes to capture state and federal funding to supplement local revenue sources.

The recommendations are double the size of an $810 million transit project backed by the Triangle Transit Authority that fell through in 2006 after the federal government refused to offer funds.

Despite the TTA failure, none of the commission members raised objections during the Feb. 29 meeting to the more-extensive plan put forth in the commission’s recommendations. Instead, much of the debate centered on how best commission members could sell the plan to government leaders and the public at large.

“We’re all going to be ambassadors for convincing people that the sales tax increase is a good thing,” said Mike Shiflett, a member of the Durham Inter-Neighborhood Council. “Transit benefits everyone: students, the poor, developers, and non-transit users.”

“We’re not trying to force people to have a different lifestyle — we’re simply providing an opportunity for them to choose that different lifestyle,” said Holly Reid, president of the board of directors for the Eno River Association, an environmental advocacy group.

George Cianciolo, a commission cochairman and pathology professor at Duke University Medical Center, told CJ that there has been no open public opposition to the transit recommendations.

“Everybody who’s come up to talk to me has been very positive,” he said. “We do have a couple members on the commission who prefer that we stay with the bus system and forget about rail. That will be in the report as the minority position.”

When asked whether there has been much resistance to the plan, Smedes York, another commission cochair and former Raleigh mayor, said there “has been discussion, no doubt about that.” He also noted that all of the meetings have been open to the public.

“The media has reported about it, and now you’re reporting about it,” York said.

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.