Indy Week: Wake County’s Mass Transit System Is a Mess. Can a $2.3 Billion Referendum Save It?

If a diverse coalition of pro-transit reformers—including all of the Wake County commissioners, municipal politicians, universities, social justice groups, community leaders, and chambers of commerce—gets its way, life as Wake County riders know it will change. Advocates for a $2.3 billion transit referendum promise that, if passed, it will not only quadruple bus service but also entirely revamp Wake's public transportation system within the next ten years, introducing bus rapid transit, commuter rail, local circulators for the municipalities, and express service in, out, and across the county.

It's late August, the first day of a week I'm spending using only Wake County's public transportation system to get around, to see what it's like to have to depend on a system that riders, bureaucrats, and elected officials all agree is unreliable, ineffective, and in desperate need of upgrades.

I get to my stop around 9:10 a.m., to take the 12 bus to downtown Raleigh so I can grab breakfast with some friends. A few minutes later, the bus makes a right onto Cameron Street, halts on the other side of Daniels Street from my stop, and picks up another passenger. The bus continues on—and then drives right past me, stopping at Woodburn Street, a block away. After a few minutes—maybe it's waiting for me, but I'm not sure if this is actually my bus—it pulls away from the Woodburn stop and heads toward downtown.

I'm confused. Is this my bus? I think I'm right, and my phone thinks I'm right, but now I'm doubting both of us.

I wait a long, anxious fifteen minutes for the 16 to come, at 9:30. When it does, it again pauses at the phantom stop, this time picking up no one. I learn my lesson, complete the aforementioned sprint, and take my seat, to the chuckles of passengers behind me.

Over the course of that week, I rode buses that had no air conditioning, were consistently late, and were generally a pain to use. Luckily, I had a car to return to the following week; for many riders—a quarter of GoRaleigh's ridership makes $15,000 a year or less—that isn't an option.

But it might not be that way for much longer. If a diverse coalition of pro-transit reformers—including all of the Wake County commissioners, municipal politicians, universities, social justice groups, community leaders, and chambers of commerce—gets its way, life as Wake County riders know it will change. Advocates for a $2.3 billion transit referendum promise that, if passed, it will not only quadruple bus service but also entirely revamp Wake's public transportation system within the next ten years, introducing bus rapid transit, commuter rail, local circulators for the municipalities, and express service in, out, and across the county.

For advocates like Wake County commissioner John Burns, this is the one chance to bring the county's transportation system up to speed with its growth.

"We are a modern, growing county that needs a modern and flexible transportation system," he says. "We have to have it. We are going to choke on our own success if we don't offer an alternative means of transportation."

Local officials are often diplomatic when talking about the transit system's problems. Not Wake County commissioner Sig Hutchinson. "In my opinion," he says, "we just don't have a functioning transit system in the Triangle."

Hutchinson, who was elected to the Board of Commissioners in 2014 and is a former chairman of Triangle Transit (now GoTriangle), says he's been working for the last ten or fifteen years on getting a comprehensive transit plan for Wake County.

It's long overdue. While Raleigh transit administrator David Eatman notes that Raleigh didn't slash bus service during the height of the recession, he admits that, since then, "we obviously didn't go through a large expansion, either."

Raleigh and Wake officials say that common complaints about the bus system, run by GoRaleigh, include unreliability, infrequent service, lackluster amenities such as bus shelters, and, of course, the fact that the buses just don't run late enough; all GoRaleigh buses, except the downtown R-LINE, shut down before midnight.

"It's one of the things our ridership has asked for pretty much every time we ask them what they want," Eatman says.

Meanwhile, the county keeps growing: sixty-three new residents per day, or twenty-three thousand per year. By 2025, Wake's population is expected to reach 1.2 million. The county's new transit plan points to 2040—when, if current trends keep up, the county's population could exceed 1.5 million—as a sort of D-Day for congestion. The gist: if you think I-40 at rush hour is bad now, try putting the entire current population of Cary on the road at the exact same time.

The reason it's taken so long for the county to make a significant investment in public transportation is easy: Republican politicians. Specifically, Wake County and General Assembly Republicans.

Until 2009, the state barred local governments from raising taxes for mass transit. That changed with the Congestion Relief and Intermodal Transportation Act, which gave Triangle counties the option of levying a half-cent tax. Durham and Orange voters approved sales tax increases in 2011 and 2012, respectively, with the money earmarked toward an intercounty light rail. But the Wake County commission, then under Republican control and led by former Raleigh mayor Paul Coble, declined to follow suit, actively opposing efforts to put the tax hike on the ballot and, at one point in November 2013, bringing in a panel of conservative-leaning transportation experts to oppose light rail.

In 2014, however, Coble and his fellow Republicans were swept out of office, and the new all-Democratic commission revived mass transit talks. But they didn't talk much about light rail; the new plan, released in December, focused instead on expanded bus service countywide and the implementation of a thirty-seven-mile commuter rail, which will run from Garner to Durham.

"I'd love to have light rail," Hutchinson says. "[But] light rail is just radioactive with the legislature. They feel like it's social engineering and part of a communist plot and all of these things that don't make a lot of sense."

Indeed, last year the General Assembly capped the state's contribution to the Durham-Orange County light rail at $500,000. This year, that cap was replaced with a 10 percent limit. Given that the light-rail plan calls for 25 percent of the $1.6 billion price tag to come from state coffers, that's put the entire project in jeopardy.

Wake commissioners learned their lesson. Not only does their plan eschew light rail, but it also asks the state to only pay 1 percent of the total cost.

On June 6, after seemingly endless meetings, the commission finally voted to put the transit referendum on the November ballot. The commission chambers erupted in rapturous applause.

"Now comes the hard work," Burns told the INDY the time—in other words, selling the damn thing to voters.

I fit to a T the description of someone whom advocates want to bring into the transit system's ridership: a millennial with little money whose life would greatly benefit from cheap, semi-adequate public transportation.

I live three minutes from downtown Raleigh, and it usually takes me the same amount of time to find a spot in the garage as it does to drive to the office. On the bus, it's just as easy. I live two minutes from a stop; I take the 12 or the 16 to Moore Square and walk two minutes to my office on Wilmington Street. And the $45 monthly price tag is attractive, considering how the parking garage costs $110 a month.

As an added bonus, I live near Cameron Village, so I can get by just using the bus. There are at least a dozen restaurants within four blocks of me, the place I get my hair cut is around the corner, and the Harris Teeter is steps away. Even my dentist is two doors down.

It's not as easy for some folks—those who live in an urban food desert such as South Park and areas of southeast Raleigh, or service workers who have to travel to areas not as well-serviced by the transportation system, such as North Raleigh, in order to make a living. Considering that the most recent GoRaleigh survey indicates almost of half of its ridership makes less than $30,000 per year, it's likely that includes a lot of people.

"It's not that the current system doesn't work well, it's that it's not what's needed," says Tazra Mitchell, a policy analyst from the N.C. Justice Center, the progressive think tank that, in an August letter, endorsed the plan. "Having more transit options helps improve quality of life. Having a car, car insurance, property taxes, all of that adds up. Low-income people have less disposable income, so it's important to have affordable options." 

It didn't take long for me to figure out how unreliable the buses were.

I left work Monday around 6 p.m. and trudged down to Moore Square, Raleigh's transit center, to catch the bus home. The bus was late, presumably due to traffic.

I saw a man wearing a blue work shirt with a logo I couldn't make out sitting on the bench. I asked him if the bus is usually late. He laughed. "Yeah," Rahmir Watson said. "It's usually late."

When the bus came ten minutes later, I greeted the driver and asked her how she was doing. "A lot better, glad to have a working AC!" she responded. (Over the course of my week on the bus, I counted at least four rides with malfunctioning air conditioning.)

I climbed aboard and asked Watson what his experience on the bus had been like. He said he's been riding it for three years—and it's seldom on schedule.

"I tried to catch the very first Method [the 12 route] bus at six fifteen for my first day of training at work, because I got a promotion," Watson said. "It just didn't come. I had to wait until six forty-five to catch the next bus."

I asked if he got in trouble at work because of that. "A little bit, yeah," he replied.

Over the course of the week, I only deviated from my Cameron Village-to-downtown route three times; once on Tuesday night, because my girlfriend and I were going to a show downtown; another time on Thursday night, when I took the 4 bus to our friends' apartment off Blue Ridge Road; and Friday night, when I took the bus home from work and then, after realizing I didn't have the $1.25 in cash to pay for a fare to get back downtown for a Brian Wilson show, weaseled my way into getting some friends to give me a ride.

When we got out of that show, at 10:30, I checked my phone for options to get home. They were abysmal. My only choices were a) to immediately leave and take a 4 bus, which would have included a mile of drunk walking; b) a route in which I would have taken two R-LINE buses that also included a mile of drunk walking; or c) just drunk-walking the whole two miles back to my apartment.

I chose option D: I got a ride with friends.

To say the transit referendum has institutional support is an understatement; the mayors of ten out of the county's twelve municipalities have endorsed the plan, and Knightdale mayor James Roberson and Morrisville mayor Mark Stohlman are honorary cochairs. The other two are Shaw University president Tashni-Ann DuBroy and Raleigh mega-developer John Kane. And the campaign has support from groups that don't see eye to eye on many issues: the progressive N.C. Justice Center and eight local chambers of commerce, as well as the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association, the oldest African-American political organization in the city.

But not everyone's on board. Raleigh activist Octavia Rainey, for instance, believes that the referendum could speed up gentrification in east and southeast Raleigh.

"Black people are not living in the inner cities, so they won't be getting on the bus," Rainey says. "Because of their income, they're going to be pushed farther and farther out. And if you look at the corridors, they're going to be very, very high income, and the goal is for them to look like downtown, with restaurants on the bottom and people living on the top."

Advocates say they're not ignoring those issues.

"When you do transit-oriented development, the critique—and I've heard this critique—is that we're going to come down New Bern Avenue and make it look like Brier Creek," Burns says. "That's not the goal at all. The goal is to put a transit artery on New Bern Avenue that the surrounding community can rely upon."

In addition, the usual small-government groups are objecting. On its website, the John Locke Foundation calls the referendum "new, additional taxation, and a lot of it. It's $78.5 million [referring to expected revenues in 2018] taken from every single person who buys anything in Wake County. It's $78.5 million taken away from every other conceivable use within the economy and pumped into trains and buses. Are we sure that's a great idea?"

The Wake County Taxpayers Association, which is heading up the local opposition, started a website,againstthetax.com, calling the plan "mass transit run amok."

"The reason we oppose the plan is that it's a bad plan," says Ed Jones, chairman of the WCTA board. "It's going to cost the taxpayers of Wake County at least five billion dollars. It talks about putting in three times the numbers of buses, a commuter rail that isn't going to work here, and is going to cost a tremendous deficit. It's going to cost an awful lot of money to run. I am all for a transportation plan with buses that work, but what we have now does not work, and what's proposed isn't going to work."

"You know Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams—build it and they will come?" asks WCTA vice president Tony Pecoraro, referring to advocates' assumption that better bus service will produce more riders. "Not likely."

On September 19, the WCTA held a press conference featuring Civitas president Francis De Luca and Wake County Republican Party chairman John Bryant at the Adventure Landing park, followed by a "Wake County Taxpayers Putt Putt Tournament."

Odd as that sounds, it's more organized than the anti-referendum campaigns in Orange and Durham. "Most of [the opposition] was sort of, I would describe it as sophomoric," says Gerry Cohen, a former special counsel to the General Assembly who worked on both the Durham and Orange referendum campaigns. "The comments would use the word 'choo-choos.' They ran like a middle-school student council campaign."

It didn't work. Durham County passed its referendum in 2011 with more than 60 percent of the vote; Orange County passed its referendum with 59 percent the following year. While those are comfortable margins, both Durham and Orange are generally known to be more left-leaning than Wake County.

Still, nearly every advocate for the Wake County plan with whom the INDY spoke was confident the plan would pass. And even the skeptics don't sound optimistic about their chances. But what if the plan fails?

"It means we're not going to see any improvements in our public transportation system," says Karen Rindge, executive director of WakeUP Wake County, which enthusiastically supports the plan. "It means our water and air quality is going to get worse, we're going to be less competitive, and the people who rely on public transportation are going to still be struggling."

Last year, Hutchinson points out, the General Assembly threatened to rescind Wake's ability to put a sales-tax increase on the ballot.

"There's no reason to believe they're not going to try that again," he says. "There is no plan B. We have one shot to get this done. If we can't get this done right now, I don't think we're going to have another opportunity."

On Saturday, I woke up, threw on some clothes, and headed to Crabtree Valley Mall. Getting there was almost as easy as getting to work—just a straight shot on the 16 bus. If I worked at the mall, I wouldn't feel the same way; missing the hourly bus to the mall at my stop means your next option is to take a 12 bus downtown, transfer to the 6 bus, take that to the mall, and then sprint to work.

This, of course, assumes you had a reliable way home.

"I heard from one constituent," says county commissioner Matt Calabria, "[who said,] 'My son works at the mall, and the mall closes at nine, but the bus stops running before he can catch it because of his job.'"

On Sunday at 5 p.m., I had a dinner scheduled in Durham. So when I woke up, I mapped out my route and discovered that I would have to leave my apartment by 2:37 p.m. to make it on time. The trip worked as follows: I walked a half-mile to the GoTransit stop and took the 100 bus to the Regional Transit Center in Morrisville—which, on a Sunday afternoon, is utterly lifeless. A few minutes later, I took the 700 express bus to Durham Station. When I got there, I took my final bus, the GoDurham 11, to the stop nearest my destination.

And then I realized that it was going to be even more difficult to get back home. I'd either need to cab it back to Raleigh or walk a mile to the Amtrak station, hop a train, then take a cab or walk the two miles to my apartment; both options would have cost at least $20 but probably more, as well as a lot of time. Fortunately, and probably out of pity, one of my dinner companions offered a ride. I accepted without hesitation.

The next morning, I groggily woke up at 7:15 to get on the road to Durham, where I had a meeting that started at 8:30. I couldn't help feeling like I did in high school when my dad handed me the keys to the then-shiny, now-shitty Ford Focus I still drive. Air conditioning or not, it provides a sense of freedom that I learned to appreciate anew over the course of my week on the bus.

That feeling lasted about twenty minutes. Then I hit traffic on I-40.

The above is excepted from an article authored by PauPaul Blest and appeared in Indy Week on October 5th. Read more here.