It wasn't a bad morning to head to Raleigh to do some research at the state archives. A quick DATA bus ride downtown to the Durham Station transit center, then a walk across the sweet pedestrian bridge over Chapel Hill Street to catch the TTA rail line. Then it was on the light rail system for a quiet ride past downtown and East Durham, before the ride along the rail corridor through RTP, Cary, the NC State area and finally downtown Raleigh.
And an enjoyable trip it was, having time to catch up on the morning newspaper while typing away on the laptop. The train was clean and well-traveled, with a mix of daily commuters and families making their way along the region.
Most impressive: the Triangle Metro Center, where office and retail space is really filling up in what's now being called the modern heart of RTP as light rail has created a new dense center between the cities.
...wait, I'm totally kidding. We don't have a stinkin' rail system here.
Yes, the scenario above is what many dreamed of in the Triangle, worked for for years. And at the end of the 1990s, it was widely thought that Durhamites and Raleighites would be shuttling along a rail system well-established by the time 2010 rolled around.
But a funny thing happened on the way to a rail system. The project got shot down after the Federal Transit Administration changed the rules for federal New Starts funding just as the Triangle Transit plan was about to be evaluated.
A few years later, transit supporters have regrouped, creating the STAC plan for a mix of rail and bus service in the Triangle.
But there's plenty of reasons to believe that the core concept of the 2000s plan for transit -- a direct-connection run built out between North Raleigh and Duke via Cary, RTP and Durham -- will end up being replaced by a set of regional transit systems that might just link up, someday... and leaving RTP last when it comes to the kind of dense, transit-oriented development the Park needs most.
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The TTA effort got under way in the 1990s and seemed to be on a roll in the early 2000s, with the authority having acquired most of the right of way for the planned route, which would have snaked from north Raleigh along the Capital Blvd. corridor, down to downtown Raleigh, west to NCSU and Cary, then up through RTP and into Durham, terminating at Duke University.
But cracks in the armor began to appear.
First, cost escalations spiraled -- thanks, no doubt, to the worldwide construction boom raising prices for concrete, steel and other necessities.
At the same time, the Triangle Transit Authority lacked any revenue stream dedicated for transit save for a rental car tax, which brought in only about $7 million a year in revenue at the start of the decade.
In 2004, as costs spiraled to almost $860 million, the TTA eliminated the Duke Medical Center station and three north Raleigh stations, focusing instead on a $664 million core rail service plan. And the plan's use of a shared rail corridor with freight traffic led to skepticism and higher design and construction costs to incorporate passenger rail into what had been hoped to be an inexpensive way of reusing an existing right of way.
But there was a further wrinkle to come.
The Federal Transit Administration changed the rules of engagement for evaluating rail projects under its "New Starts" program, throwing TTA down a switchback from which it would not return.
The agency lowered the cost-per-hour of travel time saved threshold, under which the TTA plan had previously qualified, to a level at which it no longer met the federal requirements for funding.
As the Indy's Bob Geary noted, the feds also had an issue with the modeling figures TTA used to calculate ridership and traffic delays, which at one point foresaw an eyebrow-raising four hour trip time on I-40 between the two cities.
Most galling, the feds changed the rules of the game shortly after approving Charlotte's rail proposal, which was set for consideration only a few weeks before the Triangle's.
Which is why today you can ride Charlotte's Blue Line from uptown to I-485 along the South Boulevard corridor -- and see tens of millions of dollars in new commercial and residential development to boot along the line.
Meanwhile, it's crickets in the Triangle. With federal funding out of the picture, 60% of the funds needed to build the program disappeared overnight.
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What's the future for rail transit in the Triangle?
The first step lies in getting a funding underpinning. One key to Charlotte's success was their half-cent local option sales tax dedicated to transit, which provided a stable local funding source to improve rail and bus service.
Late in the decade, conservatives tried to repeal the tax through a referendum, a move opposed by Republican Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory (who lost his '08 bid for the governorship) -- and a move that went down to a 70/30 defeat that signaled broad public support in Metrolina for transit.
Now the ball is in the Triangle's hands, with governments in Wake, Orange and Durham counties willing approval this year to put the same local-option tax on ballots here.
Given the current recession, though, there's not likely to be a rush to do so. Best-case for such a move appears to be 2011, and even then, there's a need to stabilize both the jobs-and-income picture and political support for doing so.
The bigger question from Durham's perspective: what gets built first, and where?
After much navel-gazing and study, a regional committee of planners and citizens in the Triangle came together for the STAC committee report. The "Special Transit Advisory Committee" ended up recommending a new approach to rail and bus transit in the region. For rail, the same diesel-unit trains proposed in the TTA plan are in dark blue, with light rail in light-blue.
Importantly, while the STAC recommendations end up at much the same rail-corridor point as the initial TTA plan -- with the addition of service along the 15-501/NC 54 corridors between Durham and Chapel Hill -- they would phase the plan in differently.
Instead of starting with the Raleigh-Durham connection, the City of Oaks would start with a transit system connecting north Raleigh to downtown and over to the NC State area and Cary, but omitting RTP from the picture for the time being. And Raleigh's segment, thanks to that city's higher population, would be built years before Durham and Orange saw such a system.
Durham and Chapel Hill would work on their own connectivity plans, meanwhile, with a possible light rail line from Alston Ave. to Duke and down 15-501 to Patterson Place the first build-out area.
Yet RTP in such a scenario could end up being served last by high-frequency light rail traffic, relying instead on less-frequent commuter rail trains connecting outlying communities from Burlington to Goldsboro through Durham, RTP, and Raleigh. That service could in theory happen much faster than light rail could, but without frequency of service would be unlikely to galvanize big increases in development densities or much transit-oriented development. (See more in BCR's fall 2008 story on commuter rail plans.)
As the N&O's Bruce Siceloff noted in a must-read story earlier this month:
The sprawling Research Triangle Park lacks the density to generate as much transit traffic.
Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker says commuter trains could be "a viable alternative to having the Triangle Transit light rail to Durham right away." But Durham Mayor Bill Bell has qualms about joining forces with N.C. Railroad to launch the rush-hour trains.
"That means we've got to put money into their proposal to make it happen," Bell said. "And is it really feasible, after you do that, to come back and talk about light rail later?"
Note the back-and-forth between Meeker and Bell. Right there, and in the phasing of the two proposals, sits one of the more intriguing parts of this story.
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One of the knocks against transit in Sunbelt states is the idea that most residents moving to our area prefer their single-family home on a quarter-acre of land to some kind of downtown density.
But it's a chicken-and-egg problem. Without a strong transit system, there's no mechanism to make higher density supportable.
The strong development interest along Charlotte's transit corridor demonstrates that a smartly-planned rail line can reshape residential preferences, supporting in-fill dense development that revitalizes core cities, increases tax revenues, and supports local business.
Bell gets that. And so does Meeker.
And to my mind, the push by Meeker and Raleigh's leadership to build transit first in the capital area is a clear power play, an attempt to drive disproportionate growth, jobs, and corporate relocation to downtown Raleigh.
RTP's proximity amidst the center of the region, as we've talked about here many times before, seems to chafe with the Raleigh half of the world, some of whom have griped -- as in this New Raleigh post by failed City of Oaks mayoral candidate Lee Sartrain -- that RTP should be minimized in a world in which Raleigh should become the center of the metro area, with Durham joining Wake Forest, Clayton and Chapel Hill as the suburban edge.
Of course, that argument ignores the small problem that UNC and Duke's collective brainpower drive much of the reason for the arrival of high-tech and life sciences firms, and the source of many of those firms' workers.
But transit-oriented development density is a way for Raleigh to leap ahead in turning the polycentric Triangle towards a more Raleigh-focused region.
Mind you, there's no disagreement here that RTP needs more density -- a subject we'll return to later on in a look at the top stories of the decade.
This Lego-map from this year's Urban Land Institute Reality Check event, which shows residential population in yellow blocks and jobs in red, shows the screwed-up hourglass design of the region, which distributes a healthy number of jobs over way too large an RTP land area:
As commutes and traffic gets worse, and companies shift from large single-site models to leaner, thinner, more flexible business models, the demand for more flexible housing units with large numbers of apartments and leasable office space will likely drive tomorrow's job picture.
And that's the play that Raleigh is certain to want to make with connecting and incentivizing more residential, commercial, and retail density.
Raleigh's play to be first with transit, as a result, isn't just about the viability of such service under existing density models along transit corridors.
It's about reshaping, rebuilding the Triangle -- ultimately, about liking the shape of an I-540 circle quite a bit more than the region's trilateral visage.
Which means it's about all of Durham's tomorrows, and those in the Research Triangle Park as well.
All of which makes the coming years' talk over transit one of the most important stories to watch.