Voters on Tuesday will get a chance to weigh in on the only public referendum on Wake County ballots this year, an ambitious proposal to expand public transit services in the county in preparation for the accelerating population growth expected in the next decade. While many county residents and NC State students may not give the transit plan much thought, the proposed increases in bus and rail services could actually go a long way in supporting the urbanization and economic development of Raleigh and its surrounding communities, and I urge you to give it some careful thought before you head to the polls.
Wake County’s population increased by 43.5 percent between 2000 and 2010, the highest rate of any metropolitan area in the U.S. at the time. In 2014, it joined Mecklenburg County as the state’s only two counties with populations exceeding 1 million and this trajectory is not expected to slow down any time soon.
While this fast-paced growth has been a boon for North Carolina’s economy, much of it comes in the form of low density, car-dependent sprawl in the surrounding suburbs that does not give many residents the freedom to choose how to get around. In 2013, for example, 80 percent of Wake County residents drove alone to work with an average round-trip travel time of 50.2 minutes. At those rates, many of our roads and highways will be well over capacity by 2040, with an accompanying increase in traffic congestion and frustrated drivers.
To sustainably accommodate the influx of new residents, public investment in mass transit is a must. The main goal of the Wake Country transit referendum, which will be partly paid for by the 0.5 percent increase in the local sales tax that will appear on the ballot, is to vastly improve people’s ability to get through the day without having to get into a car. This is an attractive idea not only to many millennials, who are gravitating toward more urban, transit-oriented lifestyles than their car-bound parents, but also other segments of the population, including students, the elderly, low-income residents who cannot afford a car, or people who are just tired of spending over an hour getting to work every day. It’s worth noting here that the average American spends about two hours per workday working to pay for their car and its upkeep (including gas) – or about three months per year. Thus, it’s easy to see why many young people in urbanizing areas are drawn to the idea of shedding their car, or at least using it much less often.
The specific proposals of the plan include tripling (from 6 percent to 20 percent) the percentage of residents within a 15-minute walk of frequent bus services (where buses come every 15 minutes or less), expanding the total frequent bus network from its current 17 miles to 83 miles, more than doubling (to 48 percent) the percentage of jobs within a 15-minute walk of bus services, expanding Wi-Fi access on buses, improving connectivity between key, high-traffic regional destinations (universities, hospitals, the airport, and downtown) and constructing 20 miles of bus rapid transit infrastructure. Bus rapid transit routes utilize longer-than-usual buses (sort of like trains on wheels) that have dedicated lanes and priority access at intersections, allowing them to bypass car traffic and cut travel time.
The second major element of the plan envisions connecting communities in the Triangle with 37 miles of commuter rail service, the first of its kind in North Carolina. The rail corridor would connect Garner, Raleigh, NC State, Cary, Morrisville, RTP and Durham with up to eight round-trip trains during the busiest commuting hours, allowing workers to completely bypass highway congestion that can currently push a commute from Durham to Raleigh beyond an hour.
If the history of such transit systems (in Charlotte, Minneapolis and Denver, for example) can be used as a guide, then the new bus and rail corridors will become anchors for a new wave of walkable, mixed-use, transit-oriented developments. Companies will likely compete to build apartments, restaurants and shops that accommodate the less car-centric urban lifestyles made possible in a Raleigh more connected by transit services and less dominated by the personal automobile. If we want our city and county to make the most of its ongoing population boom, we have to make sure that we get public transit right. Please vote for the Wake County transit referendum at the end of your ballot on Tuesday.
William Harris is a senior studying chemical engineering and physics