News: CJ Exclusives

Transit Experts Tell Commissioners to Emphasize Buses

Too soon to move to rail transit in Wake County, they say

A trio of transportation experts told the Wake County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday that more bus service, and less eagerness to move to light rail, appears to be the best next step for Wake County.

“Look at your demand … and come up with something you need that lines up with the demands of the community,” said Cal Marsella, former CEO of Denver’s Regional Transportation District now working for a private transportation management firm.

“You can build your markets … and test them” with buses, he said. “I would go low-cost to start with. You cannot build experimental light rail.”

Community leaders must be careful in exulting rail service, said Steve Polzin, transit research program director at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.

“You can shoot yourself in the foot by creating second-tier status” for bus patrons, he said. “You’re telling all those persons they’re getting a second-class product.”

Some communities “are hurting the folks that need [bus] transit now to get folks out of BMW’s” and into light rail, Polzin said. “You need to be sensitive to who you’re trying to help … Hold harmless your existing markets.”

Marsella and Polzin also were joined on the panel by Samuel Staley, associate director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University.

Population growth and density in Wake County likely are insufficient to secure vital federal grants needed to include light rail and commuter rail projects in a regional transit plan, a trio of transportation experts told the commissioners.

The $4.6 billion Wake transit plan already is three years old and needs to be updated to reflect inflationary costs and revisions to the multimodal components, they said.

That could include more emphasis on less costly expanded bus routes where demand exists, and purchase of rights of way for rail projects that could make sense years from now when higher ridership numbers justify them, the assembled experts said.

The transit experts said they came to virtually the same conclusions independent of one another’s reviews. They were brought together to advise the commissioners on approaches to developing transit strategies for Wake County.

Orange and Durham counties have approved transit plans as part of a regional project and a half-cent tax to fund them. Wake has not put the sales tax on the ballot.

Under normal circumstances, a municipality implementing a regional rail system implements a penny-plus tax system to cover costs, Polzin said.

“As you build more stuff you have more stuff to maintain going forward,” and many communities across the country “struggle with that,” Polzin said. Washington, D.C., is challenged by unfunded needs, and Portland is “slammed with employment and retirement costs that they haven’t fully funded.”

Transit projects are “notorious” for far exceeding projected costs, Staley said.

With those issues in mind, Marsella said, “I think that the financing assumptions need to be revisited. I think all three of us concur that getting federal support in the percentages that we’re looking at right now is going to be problematic based on the numbers, the ridership numbers.”

Marsella said the feds “are tough. It’s a tough process” to get funding from them. Denver, for instance, had two corridors with significantly higher ridership numbers than Wake County’s and didn’t apply for federal funding because they were certain they didn’t meet the criteria, he said.

“I’m not ready to cast a death knell” on the rail projects, he said. “Is it ready for rail yet? I’m not so sure about that.” But it could be ready for bus rapid transit that morphs into rail later, he said.

Officials should “take a real close look at the assumptions in the financing plan and even in the ridership,” Marsella said. Current projections of where ridership will go “doesn’t square with me” compared to where ridership is today. “I just don’t see the numbers that strong that we’re going to fill trains.”

But planning should be put in place for future rail considerations, he said. “Keep your options open toward a vision to accomplish it.”

The rail project, “from a pure, pragmatic numbers perspective, is a premature investment,” Polzin said. “If this were a stock prospectus and someone were looking at this, they wouldn’t jump, because you’re an outlier.”

Wake County is “not a normal urban area that’s pursuing rail in the sense of having the robust existing market,” Polzin said. “You’re not turning away passengers on your buses.” Forecasts in cities where rail is pursued often have 60 percent or more of riders converting from existing bus to rail. “You’re not in that position as best I can tell.”

But there are intangibles that planners like himself grudgingly must concede, he said.

Building rail lines as an icon or as a statement that one’s is a “progressive” community is “substantive, and it counts to people,” Polzin said.

But, he cautioned, if that is the desire, a community should not “run around pretending that this is solving global warming, and reducing congestion, and saving air quality, and doing all kinds of other things” because experts with full knowledge will know those claims will be false.

If a community offers it on a referendum ballot to taxpayers “as a choice and an urban lifestyle, that’s fine. If you’re saying this is an icon, this is something we do just like parks, and zoos, and museums, so be it. But don’t, in effect, lie about it and try to rationalize it as a transit project,” Polzin said.

Staley emphasized that whatever agency ends up taking the lead on the transit plan, it must “make sure your assumptions are real.” If one uses bad numbers they will be exposed publicly and very well could set back any transit improvement for decades, he said.

“Unfortunately, we see this happening over, and over, and over again,” Staley said.

Polzin said there would continue to be pressure groups pushing for immediate action.

“We’re talking hundreds of millions to billions of dollars and there tends to be an impatience and kind of a mindset to quit studying and start doing,” Polzin said. “You need to counteract that” and not apologize for going slowly and deliberately.

“The good news is you’re not behind the curve at all right now. Your levels of congestion are the envy of most cities, so you’re not at a crisis point, and some cities are,” he said.

All three men said the private sector should be brought more into public transit.

The U.S. is “behind the curve of what’s going on globally,” especially in Asia and South America, Staley said. In those regions, public-private partnerships are used to maintain transit services. London auctions off its bus routes to private companies, but the city sets the operating standards, he said.

“If we go outside the U.S. we find that jitney services, van services” are eagerly used in high volumes, Staley said. The municipalities auction off the routes.

“Those are things we could be experimenting with in the U.S.,” he said. The government would ensure the contracts are monitored and establish performance metrics, and the private firm would handle day-to-day operations.

Marsella pointed out that Denver entered into a 34-year agreement with a consortium of rail builders and other businesses that was responsible to build light rail lines and put up several hundred million dollars at the outset. The government pays a monthly sum to cover those costs.

Because it’s private sector, the line is “coming out of the ground faster” than any project he’s been involved with, Marsella said. The model makes sense for a municipality, he said, because it controls the fares, but the payments are on a pre-arranged schedule and the private partners are responsible for employee costs and benefits.

“I’m absolutely convinced it’s the best deal,” he said.

Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.