I’ve told this story before, but not here, I don’t believe. When my wife and I moved to the Triangle 20-plus years ago now, we saw something in the local press about growing traffic congestion and we just laughed — we were from NJ, after all, where they invented congestion. (And sprawl.) Besides which, we had just driven from the northern outskirts of Raleigh to our home in downtown Raleigh (Cameron Park) in something like 12 minutes flat. Congestion? Not so much. Sprawl, though.

I soon came to understand that the planners in the region were working on a sprawl-congestion remedy in the form of a transit “trunk” line that would connect Durham to Raleigh and the western side of the region to the eastern side. This trunk line would, it was thought, “pull” development patterns away from sprawl and back to a future of density in the center, the center being the railroad corridor that ran from downtown Raleigh to downtown Cary to downtown Durham, passing RTP along the way. Put a commuter rail service in the corridor alongside the Amtrak and freight trains, the planners said, and very high-density developments would spring up all along the way.

Indeed, it wasn’t hard to imagine how that could happen: For most of its length, the railroad corridor ran through the wide open spaces (west of Raleigh, east of Durham) where the shipyards used to be for a variety of manufactured goods, lumber and farm crops. No sprawling subdivisions to tear down, in other words, before you could erect the high-rise housing, office buildings and village-center stores that are the stuff of a modern “transit-oriented development.”

At the same time, though, the line ran to, or near, the region’s three downtowns (including Cary’s), two of its three major university campuses (Duke and NC State), and its two biggest employment centers (RTP and the State Government complex in Raleigh). Where it did run into something, that is, it was something big.

Carve a new corridor (extension) from Duke to Chapel Hill through the undeveloped countryside on the east side of 15-501, and eventually, all three points of the Triangle would be connected–as well as the three biggest universities.

This plan made excellent sense to me, ex-New Jerseyan that I was. But when I wrote about it for a course at NC State in ’88 or so, I sounded one cautionary note that I know would’ve been understood by anyone who’d lived in the Garden State. If you want dense development along this rail corridor, I said, then you must insist that it go in the corridor and nowhere else. Don’t just say, well, we encourage it there — while you let developers keep building it anywhere. Because for sure, they’ll build it out on the edge, where the land is abundant (and cheap) and the zoning non-existent, before they’ll step up to the hard work of urban revitalization.

Not necessary, the smart (or were they politically deluded) folks told me. Once we starting building that new commuter rail service, the developers will flock to it — they won’t need to be told. Or forced.

Well, chicken and egg. The rail service never got off the ground, because there wasn’t enough development near it to justify the cost (or so the Bush Administration’s transit officials decided). And there wasn’t enough development near it because the transit line never got off the ground. Meanwhile, of course, Raleigh was approving shopping malls and high-density residential developments everywhere but in the transit corridor, and eventually, so was Durham (see: Southpoint.) Sprawl, it turned out, wasn’t just for big-lot homes any more. You could sprawl out your dense developments too.

And, if splattered widely enough, they still wouldn’t support a transit system.

But they will give you traffic congestion.

Which Raleigh, two decades later, certainly does have, as does Durham, at least in the area around Southpoint.

And according to Ed Johnson’s famous tomato map, it’s only going to get worse. Johnson is executive director of CAMPO, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization–the top transportation planner on the Raleigh side of the Triangle. His forecast: Unless something changes in our development patterns, or unless our rich uncle builds us tens of billions of dollars worth of unexpected new road-lanes, every major intersection on the CAMPO side will be tomato-red — red meaning system failure — by the year 2035.

So now, two decades later, we begin again. There’s a new scheme for regional transit, the STAC (for Special Transit Advisory Committee) plan. Raleigh is writing a new comprehensive land-use plan, its first since 1989. Applying the lessons we’ve surely learned from the failure of our old congestion-sprawl remedy, will we do better this time. Get the dense developments into the transit corridor(s) this time?

That’s the subject of “On comprehensive planning, transit and the splatter principle — II: The buses-first approach,” forthcoming.