What's Happening with Regional Transit?

The Special Transit Advisory Commission (STAC), appointed by the two Metropolitan Planning organizations (Capitol Area MPO and Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro MPO) is close to finishing up its work after nearly a year and 15 meetings to date. This has been a longer process than I think most initially envisioned (it was originally scheduled to be completed by October 2007) due to the amount and complexity of data that had to be reviewed, the different backgrounds of the 29 official members, and the thoroughness of the discussions that ensued.

The STAC members hope to approve a final draft of their report at their meeting on April 25th. The most recent (2nd) draft of this report can be obtained at http://www.transitblueprint.org/stac.shtml

I think many observers have been surprised by the ambitiousness of the recommendations made by the STAC. The recommendations call for investments over the next 25 or so years which are more than double the projected costs of the Phase I TTA rail plan that failed to get funded. However, we believe that the completeness of our recommendations will increase the potential for both federal and state support necessary to implement these plans. Our recommendations call for initial investments in increased bus service (both local AND regional) which will begin to promote transit ridership, will provide more mobility for our lower income citizens, and will provide a sense of regionality by connecting the outlying communities in our region to the major central hubs of Raleigh-Cary-Durham-Chapel Hill. Our recommendations also include the development of a circulator bus system for RTP to enable people to get to their various places of work if they choose to use the regional system. Our recommendations also include initial investments in frequent express bus service to RDU from not only these major centers but also, on a less frequent basis, from some of the outlying towns as well.

The draft report recommendations call for a 56-mile rail line (twice the length of the Phase I TTA plan) running from Chapel Hill to North Raleigh. And yes, this line would connect to RDU, unlike the Phase I plan. The line from Chapel Hill to Durham would most likely be electrified light rail and from Durham to North Raleigh would be DMU (Diesel Multiple Unit) running on the new superclean diesel fuels.

Our recommendations include financial projections that demonstrate that all of this could be in place by approximately 2024. And what would this cost? We propose a sales tax increase of 0.5 cents. That would mean an extra 5 cents on every ten dollars spent (or, if you like, an extra 2 cents on your latte). We also proprose an increase of $10 in the vehicle registration fee. In our discussions we often heard these projections referred to as a "Charlotte level of effort". Personally, I never liked that comparison because I've always felt we in the Triangle have much more to offer, in terms of business opportunities, educational opportunities, quality of life, than Charlotte.

We can do this and now is the time to do it. We can begin to solve our transportation problems with a reasonably comprehensive, regional transit system and we can do it now, at a reasonable cost, without passing it on to the next generation to solve.

If you would like to leave comments on the draft report you can do so now at http://www.transitblueprint.org/stac/staccomment.shtml

FYI, the Orange County delegation includes former Chapel Hill Town Manger Cal Horton, UNC Board of Trustees Chairman Roger Perry, Carolyn Elfland (UNC Associate Vice Chancellor), James Carnahan (ex-officio; Carrboro Planning Board Chair), Bernadette Pelissier (Orange County Planning Board), Holly Reid (President, Eno River Assn. Board of Trustees) and myself (Chair, CH Planning Board). Also on the STAC is frequent OP poster Gerry Cohen (former member CH Board of Aldermen).



Kudos to the STAC for starting a blog as well! http://stacplan.blogspot.com! This is great way to take input and to publicly show that you are listening. Plus it lets us see each others comments, which is very helpful and builds trust in the process.

I look forward to reviewing the report.

In my late season flu/cold-induced fogginess I forgot to list one very, very important recommendation of the STAC - regarding GOVERNANCE. The STAC recommends that the proposed regional transit system be run by a regional transit authority and that this organization be governed by elected, not appointed, officials representing the citizens who will be asked to support this system with the proposed increased taxes and fees.We felt this sort of accountability by the governing officials would help alleviate concerns by citizens that they were paying a disproportionate part of the bill.
I want to correct something that George says -- what is proposed for RDU is not the Raleigh-Durham rail line running through the airport, but a direct link, technology unknown (could be bus, people mover, light rail) to be worked out with the Airport Authority which has been very supportive since continued airport growth is starting to be limited by access to the airport. Conventional wisdom that the airport does not want transit because they keep building parking decks has been replaced by the airport begin to commit to transit access. One recent model for this access could be what Newark Airport (or whatever they are calling it now) implemented about five years ago, where a dedicated people mover connects the airport terminals to the AMTRAK/New Jersey transit line. Or it could be a streetcar connector system also linking to RTP. Or, it could be express buses that could handle luggage (Boston has this kind of link to the T)

Today's Vancouver Sun has an interesting, if alarmist, article on the end of air travel as we know it. Amongst other things, the article suggests that rising fuel costs are going to put an end to the era of airplanes used as flying buses.


Hi Gerry,

My original post did say that the rail line would connect to the airport, not run through it but thank you for expounding upon the increased interest that the Airport Authority has taken in participating in a regional rail system. I think we all appreciate the value that this will have in helping this plan move forward.


It sounds like the airport has come around to the view that transit would be a Good Thing, and I see that as a vast improvement on their previous attitude. I hope it helps nudge this forward.

STAC did a good job in the section on why we need to invest in transit. I particularly appreciate the fact that the aging demographic is going to accelerate our need for public transportation. The case for the rising cost of fuel pushing increasing numbers of folks to seek out mass transit could be made far stronger than the report suggests. Aside from some technical report writing issues, (such as the report is far too full of jargon and acronyms, and the executive summary doesn't even mention a wholly new governing body or an ad valorem tax), my chief concern with the report is that it isn't broad enough in the scope of what actually needs to be done. 

If the cost of fuel keeps rising at roughly 20% per year then we don't have 27 years to come up with affordable mass transit. With a doubling in fuel costs every 5 years, we have maybe 10 years max before a majority of people are forced to reconsider how they view transportation. And with the rising cost of Av fuel and an aging and failing air fleet, we may not be all that worried about whether mass transit goes to the airport in 2 or 3 decades.

Of concern:

  • No mention of rail stops in Orange, specifically in Hillsborough, Efland, Mebane -- If the EDD and Buckhorn Village Projects are to go forward, and perhaps even if they don't, these areas are natural and historic train station areas that would be well served by commuter rail. While STAC is working with NC Railroad Shared Corridor Track Expansion Study, they say flat out that their study is not meant to be a substitute for local and regional planning, so it's up to STAC or TTA to make the recomendations.
  • 2005 road congestion data out of date - No mention that Churton St (86N) in Hillsborough, and 15-501S from Southern Village to Pittsboro are already over capacity. In the case of Churton St, what percentage of traffic is from people commuting right straight through town? What percentage of traffic on 86, 70 and 54 is from those who enjoy lower tax rates outside of Orange?
  • Planning area too small and too metro-centric - No bus routes planned for 86N. Too little attention paid to the fact that increasingly Hillsborough, Yanceyville, Roxboro, Mebane, Saxapahaw, Pittsboro, Graham, Burlington and Siler City are serving as long distance bedroom communities for the Triangle due to the lack of affordable housing closer in. 
  • Are rural residents, many of whom cannot afford to live in metro areas, and who need access to affordable transportation, being asked to foot the bill for Wake County's stunning lack of planning for explosive growth? 


The enhanced bus service part of the plan calls for express bus service from Burlington through Mebane to Chapel Hill via Hillsborough, which will increase service on 86N, from Graham and from Saxapahaw to Chapel Hill via Carrboro, from Pittsboro to Chapel Hill, and from Roxboro to Durham.

see map at




I should have clarified. 86N through and North of Hillsborough.

reminds me of the car dealer who used to advertise on WRAL that he was located on "Highway 70 East".  East of what?
Maybe his dealership was located on the eastbound side of the highway, and he figured traffic planning was so bad no one from further east than his business would try to visit because they would have to make a left turn across US-70.


Thanks for those very useful comments. Some of the "neglect" of outlying areas you mention is probably more a function of not having the statistical data available to plan for those areas at this time. One of the things that was frequently reinforced at our meetings was that many aspects of this plan, especially bus service, needed to be flexible to accomodate changing conditions. We also wanted to leave open the possibility that service could be adjusted to accommodate the needs of outlying communities as they demonstrated an interest and willingness to participate and to use transit-oriented development planning as they grew.

Perhaps the rapid rise in fuel costs, increasing road congestion, and declining air quality will help convince enough people that it's time we stop talking and start acting on solving these problems before we get so far behind that they appear insurmountable. Sounds like we might count on your support to help light a fire under some people.


Thanks. I appreciate that the plan has to be quite flexible.  As for data on the congestion in Hillsborough, NCDOT has been studying that for a minimum of 21 years, and possibly quite a bit longer in conjunction with the ill-conceived and poorly thought out Elisabeth Brady Road Extention plans. They've got reams of data showing not just the scope of this very long brewing problem, but also showing that there's no good one-size fits most conventional solution.


I want to address one of the questions from your last post: "Are rural residents, many of whom cannot afford to live in metro areas, and who need access to affordable transportation, being asked to foot the bill for Wake County's stunning lack of planning for explosive growth? "

I guess the answer might be yes. But I could ask you: "Are Wake residents, with problems of congestion, over-crowded schools and not enough water supposed to help pay for bus service in rural areas simply because those areas don't have enough density yet to generate the income to build their own systems?"

And my answer would also be yes. The idea of a Regional Transit System is to begin to think about how we solve our problems and continue to grow as a region. And the first thing we have to do is stop pointing fingers at each other, decide what our goals as a region are, and then figure out solutions to achieve those goals and how to pay for those solutions in as fair and equitable manner as possible. Easy? No. Doable? Yes, if we really have the will.

I have lived in Wake County 25 years, before that I lived in Orange 16 years. Wake County has a different perspective.  In the STAC plan if fully built out, about 66% of the revenues would be generated in Wake County but only 55% of the capital expenditures would be spent in Wake County.  Wake County taxpayers will be subsidizing Orange and Durham Counties.  However, many in Wake are OK with this as it gives access to jobs in Durham and increases regional mobility.  There are all sorts of cross subsidization in this plan just like many other government efforts.

I attended the STAC meeting back February 29, and from listening to the discussions it sounded like there was generally a good bit of consensus on the commission as you all were meeting. Aside from minor details, I got the sense that all of the delegations were more interested in moving the project forward than letting small disagreements keep it from happening. Gerry, is there a sense in Wake County that this consensus dissipates after folks leave the room? I've heard rumors from various people I trust that that might be the case, but I'm not sure anyone has said it publicly. Of course, I don't want to pin you as being the messenger if you don't want to be. :)

I hope somewhere soon as the plan moves forward that the governance issue is addressed. Between DCHC and CAMPO, 3(+!) counties, several municipalities, TT(A), and the various state and federal groups who will inevitably be involved, it seems daunting to figure out where to turn for guidance. As a citizen-activist, I'm afraid that getting behind one particular entity or another in trying to prop up the plan at this point could accidentally spur unnecessary divisiveness. The sooner a regional authority emerges, the better, as far as I'm concerned.

One of the complaint about TT(A)'s governance is that the members from Orange and Durham Counties are elected officials and carry ideas and support back and forth to their governing boards, whereas in Wake County it is nonelected officials, so the intra county coordination and information exchange is absent.  The problem with requiring all members to be elected officials in Wake County is that with the larger jurisidictions the time available for elected officials to serve on boards is less.  It looks like there is consensus to require this, however.
In terms of thinking regionally, why not really think regionally and include the Triad? The area between the Triangle and the Triad is infilling at a high rate, and there's every indication that will continue. Why not plan from the broad perspective of including all of Central NC?

Cooperation and working together to achieve a goal to fix a common problem is great. But, at some point, if one of the players is constantly making the problem worse, one has to question how even the team spirit really is. Wake has consistantly acted in a manner that indicates a complete and utter lack of foresight and planning, on issues ranging from water to roads to schools. It's not pointing fingers to acknowledge that.

From a planning perspective, thinking of this as one big region may make some sense. But, there are very specific reasons why people choose to live in one county vs the neighboring counties.

Again, if we're going to think regionally, my concern is that the region being served is not as large as the region being asked to give support. And given Wake's record, I'm not sure we can afford their "help".

Also, I seriously question the validity of projections based on old or even present data. What were the growth projections for this region 30 years ago? Does the present reality match those projections of yore? Will the next 30 years match our projections today? We don't know. It's too far off. Isn't it better to concentrate on what can be achieved within the next 5-10 years?


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