Bonnie Hauser, speaking for “Smart Transit for Orange County” (http://smarttransitfororange.wordpress.com/) provides a transit update.
Just as the county is getting ready to start collecting its new half-cent transit tax, new questions are swirling about the plan and state and federal funding. It was predictable, and the politics are especially entertaining.
First state lawmakers signaled their disinterest in funding light rail projects, making state funding less likely than ever. (http://www.heraldsun.com/news/x941743957/Bell-sounds-out-GOP-leaders-on-transit). The Orange/Durham transit plan relies on the state to provide 25 percent of the funding.
It’s hard to tell for sure, but it appears possible that transit funds can be redirected to revamp our local transit system, whose hub-and-spoke design is not especially useful to riders who are not traveling to Duke or UNC. It’s a big change from the 2009 legislation that requires funds be used for regional transportation systems.
Triangle Transit Authority, which most stands to lose from a change in plans, isn’t buying it. At the March 14 Durham-Chapel Hill Work Group, TTA’s Patrick McDonough suggested that state funding problems will go away in a couple of election cycles. In the meantime, TTA will continue to apply half of Orange County’s transit funds to Light Rail Transit planning. That’s about $3.5 million out of $7 million a year. The latest estimate suggests it will cost $30 million just to plan light rail. At the same meeting, the Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Chapel Hill transit planner David Bonk acknowledged that more funding delays are expected because the transportation plan doesn’t align to local land use plans.
To make matters worse, in walks John Pucher, a 40-year transportation veteran from Rutgers who’s on sabbatical at UNC. While Pucher, a Raleigh native, prefers to talk bikes and pedestrians, he had no trouble suggesting that TTA go back to the drawing board and develop a new plan for the Triangle.
According to Pucher, the plan is a misfit unlikely to get funding from the federal government. Projects from larger cities get a higher priority, and the feds are no longer favorable to LRT at all. Pucher does have a bias. In his current home state of New Jersey, the Camden LRT project bankrupted the state’s transit fund, leaving no funds for much-needed improvements to the dense NJ-NYC corridors. If Pucher is right, say good-bye to another 50 percent of the LRT funds.
Pucher’s greatest concern is that TTA’s plan is built around assumptions that are 20 years old. When the planning started, LRT was the buzz. Now, given the expense, lack of flexibility, risk and limited access, cities are abandoning LRT in favor of Bus Rapid Transit with a system of priority signaling and guideways that can be implemented at a fraction of the cost. According to Pucher, if we switch to BRT, a Triangle-wide transportation system can be put in place in three to five years.
“NO, NO, NO!” cry LRT advocates. “This is a political issue, not a modal choice.” A barrage of emails from Raleigh transportation manager Eric Lamb, environmental advocate Sig Hutchinson and others encouraged Pucher to limit his comments to cyclists and pedestrians — and ignore decades of personal and professional experience with LRT and other public transportation systems.
All Pucher wanted was a local symposium where experts could advance the discussion beyond the opinions of a couple of consultants. With a symposium, we can all become better informed on contemporary transit technology and economics — including more than 100 real BRT systems in operation today. He suggests that we avoid planning transportation systems based on developer or “image” interests, and that the TTA has not seriously looked at BRT. To Pucher, it’s not only about modal decisions. In his experience, an inclusive workshop is “precisely what is needed to get regional transit in the Triangle moving forward, and is crucial for generating support for funding and to get people to ride the system.” Given that funds aren’t coming any time soon, Pucher seems to be on the right track.
It’s discouraging that a topic as important as public transportation needs to rely on politics and censorship to stay on its ill-conceived path. Now that state and feds are unlikely to be forthcoming for our $1.4 billion LRT boondoggle, can local leaders find the courage needed to course correct?
— Bonnie Hauser