Pencil this date in your day-timer: 2008 is when the Triangle Transit Authority will shoot the first passenger trains onto its new, Durham-to-Raleigh railroad tracks, inaugurating the region’s commuter rail service. Go ahead and erase any other, earlier dates you may have been given. This date, too, might slip a bit, but there really isn’t any doubt now about the big picture: TTA rail, which has seemed so often in trouble, is actually going to happen. The Federal Transportation Administration has given it a crucial green light. Congress, the N.C. General Assembly and key Triangle leaders are all aboard. Now the question is, will it be worth it? It will if our 21st-century transit pioneers can apply some lessons from their North Carolina history to the dizzying mix of issues the rail service raises.

First, though, the cost: An estimated $754.7 million capital investment (erase those earlier, lower estimates too), with half the money to come from Congress, one-fourth from the state and one-fourth from local taxes. This will pay for 35 miles of double tracks–parallel sets of track so trains can run in each direction simultaneously–and 16 station stops along the way.

The service also needs enough rail cars to have a train arriving and departing every 15 minutes at peak hours (30 minutes off-peak and weekends). The goal is to drop to 10 minutes at peak and 20 minutes otherwise by 2015.

This is not light rail, by the way. The cars will be bi-directional, self-propelled and diesel-powered (not electric), and they will be heavy-duty enough to travel at speeds up to 65 mph, whether singly or in two- or three-car “trainsets.” Average speed is expected to be 31 mph, meaning the full 35-mile route will take about 68 minutes.

TTA, using standard transportation models that consider population density, income levels and highway alternatives, estimates ridership will be 17,600 passengers a day by 2020. Just for a rough comparison, one extra highway lane carries about 1,000 cars an hour, and judging by recent cost estimates for widening Interstate 40 and I-440 near Cary–$5 million a mile for the former and $20 million a mile, in a heavily developed area, for the latter–the cost of carrying those same 17,600 passengers over 35 miles of widened roads might be less than $754.7 million. Maybe a lot less.

The problem with that kind of analysis, transportation experts say, is that every time you widen I-40 or Capital Boulevard, it gets more unsafe. Moreover, you also have to widen the roads they feed into. And still the cars will come.

“Plenty of people will make that comparison of an extra lane instead of the railroad,” says Janet D’Ignazio, planning and environment chief for the N.C. Department of Transportation, “and perhaps in the short term, a wider road is more efficient. But the TTA line is the first step toward developing a new, robust system of public transportation as an alternative [to roads and cars]. To look at it alone, it would be as if your were building I-40 and were never going to have any connector roads.”

Transit systems in Atlanta and Washington were disdained initially by many folks there and were slow starting, adds D’Ignazio. Now, after two decades, both are successful and growing just as their early supporters envisioned. “It is visionary,” she says emphatically, “when you are beginning to build a system like this.”

The argument TTA’s supporters make, then, isn’t about swapping cars for railroads in the Triangle’s sprawling suburbs. It’s about using a railroad to pioneer an urban culture in downtown–or downtrodden–places where cars don’t go anyway. Once the spine is in place, future connections can be made to the suburbs–existing rail corridors extend from downtown Raleigh over to Knightdale, down to Garner, and up north all the way to Virginia.

“It’s not being sold as an instant fix,” says Carter Worthy, a commercial real estate broker and one of the Raleigh appointees to the TTA board. “It’s not about five years from now, but 20 years. But if you think long-term, it’s a huge, exciting redevelopment opportunity for Raleigh and Durham, and there will be a huge return to the tax base.”

This talk about vision and pioneering brings to mind the first English colonists, doesn’t it? Remember their three-step process?

Stake a claim. Like Sir Walter Raleigh, the TTA is spending a lot of money to plant its flag–its 16 stations–in strategic places where long-term gains beckon.

Find settlers. In the corridor TTA’s chosen, there are obvious destinations–Duke, N.C. State and Research Triangle Park–but not many people who live there. Solution: Build affordable settlements, er, housing.

Government plans, investors follow. The English settlements took hold in North Carolina when Charles II called for representative governments. Governments bought land, planned towns and sold lots to people who built on them. That’s how Raleigh–the city–got started.

It’s no different today. The TTA can put in the trains, but to get people on them, local governments must pitch in so investors (developers) will follow.

Imagining beyond the mess

The TTA is staking its claims in a freight corridor, of all things. Rather than try to hack a new rail line through the Triangle’s subdivisions, the agency, created in 1989, opted eight years ago for the path of least resistance: It would share an existing route plied by freight cars and, for part of the way, by Amtrak. This had the advantage of being relatively cheap–although in places TTA has found it must buy land to widen the corridor so everyone’s tracks will fit. It had the disadvantage, though, of skirting the most populated areas rather than going through them.

As Ann Franklin sees it, though, this is an advantage. Franklin was involved in starting TTA as a Raleigh official and came back two years ago as a board member. Because much of the route is barren, but also adjacent to cities, she says, it has the potential for high-density development without upsetting suburban neighbors. And, of course, it’s density that makes public transportation work–lots of people living and working close to the stations.

“To create a new right-of-way was prohibitively expensive,” Franklin says. “Using a corridor where land is extremely underdeveloped–I consider that to be in the public interest.”

Not so, say TTA’s critics. Conservatives like the John Locke Foundation’s John Hood and former Raleigh Mayor Paul Coble argue that suburban cul-de-sacs and office parks are what people want. Rather than try to force them into downtown condos, they think the TTA should use buses that can go to where the people are. A fixed-rail line just won’t work.

It won’t work if local governments continue to prefer sprawl to density, says Roland Gammon, a Raleigh developer. Gammon has built downtown condos–projects like Park Devereaux, near City Hall, where Franklin lives–but he’s not much excited by the prospect of the train line coming through. “We’re not New York City,” he says. “I want to be a supporter, but I’ve never really been captivated by it.”

Why? Gammon thinks local governments won’t “make the tough decisions” because it’s easier to say yes to sprawl-style growth out where no one lives–so no one objects. “Transit is really a land-use issue, and the towns and councils will have to step up and approve the density,” he says. “I just question whether they will.”

To which Franklin says, just look at the possibilities. In Raleigh, the rail line enters from Cary along N.C. 54, and TTA’s first station stop is planned for an old industrial area a couple of miles west of the State Fairgrounds. The area is so desolate, almost anything is imaginable. What comes to TTA planners’ minds is an urban neighborhood built around housing for N.C. State, since the campus is also right on the train line as it heads into town.

Past N.C. State, the tracks push into a downtown area four blocks west of the Fayetteville Street Mall that is pockmarked with parking lots and low-rise warehouses. It’s easy to picture things growing dramatically here, as Franklin says, without really disturbing much. Then the train line swings north, splitting the distance between the Glenwood South district and the state government complex; another station is planned in the no-person’s land of odd lots and unfinished streets between them.

“In between, yeah, today it’s a mess,” Franklin agrees. But in time, with a pedestrian bridge over Capital Boulevard, redevelopment could pull the two sides together–the government mall, where more than 9,000 people work, and Glenwood South, with its condos, restaurants and nightlife.

Yes, you can imagine it. But right now, it’s a mess.

Making it all work togetherDurham is luckier than Raleigh. In Durham, the train line doesn’t just go near the downtown, it cuts straight through. Durham, a doormat in the development game, is poised to be the template for so-called “transit-oriented development,” or TODs.

A TOD puts a mix of things–retail stores, offices and housing units–in close proximity to a rail station at high-density. Interestingly, not too high, according to a study done of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system in San Francisco by the University of California’s John Sobrero. He found that the ideal residential density was about 30 units per acre–much more, apparently, and the area starts to feel claustrophobic.

Durham’s western terminus is at Duke Medical Center, near the VA Hospital and not far from the main Duke campus. TTA thinks this station will be its biggest destination, because 20,000 people work within walking distance. “Duke is huge for us,” says Amanda Arnold, a TTA planner. Not a TOD, though. The TODs will be downtown, first at Ninth Street–already a mix of funky stores, upscale offices and the Erwin Mill apartments, with more of everything going in–and then on a grand scale at the downtown station near Brightleaf Square.

The downtown site is surrounded by actual and prospective redevelopment. On one side of the tracks, Liggett & Myers plans to redevelop its old tobacco warehouses as offices and apartments; Blue Devil Ventures has already made five such buildings into 243 high-ceiling’d apartments. On the other side, Capitol Broadcasting Co. is working on the redevelopment of the huge American Tobacco complex, next to the popular Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

Durham’s biggest challenge, however, is the station planned for the east side of downtown, in the area called North/East Central. It’s an area of blight–an abandoned textile mill, vacant lots, tiny houses, low-rent stores and poor people. But if the neighborhood is down, the upside potential is tremendous. That was the message conveyed recently at a series of community meetings attended by a few dozen residents and almost that many public officials and consultants, led by Durham Mayor Bill Bell.

Bell, just elected in November, is a longtime TTA board member and its current chair. By coincidence or good planning, take your pick, Bell is bringing North/East Central a transit station (and some city redevelopment funds) at the same time the Durham Housing Authority has a federal grant to tear down the infamous Few Gardens public housing project. On the drawing boards: a mix of subsidized and market-rate housing spread over the entire, 96-block North/East Central area. As much as $90 million will be invested here.

The challenge, Bell says, is to create a vibrant, urban community–settlers, remember?–who will take advantage of the transit station, but without displacing the people who live in the neighborhood now.

Current residents, in fact, would be the prime beneficiaries if they buy into subsidized housing units as the area becomes filled with high-density, upscale housing. Just a short walk from home, North/East Central residents could jump on the train and go to work in Raleigh or ride the rails to Duke and RTP.

“For us to be successful,” Bell assured nervous residents at one meeting, “we’ve got to have the community with us.”

Easier said than done, however. North/East Central still has dirt roads, asphalt playgrounds and dark, empty places cut through by high-speed car traffic. “Won’t more apartments mean more crime?” one resident asks. Tot lots and security lighting are on the top of neighborhood wish-lists, and the consultants can’t say too many times that sidewalks, crosswalks and “safe, pedestrian connections” are the key to “creating a neighborhood of choice,” as Willie Jones, a DHA consultant, says.

“We are all working hand-in-glove,” the TTA’s senior planner, Juanita Shearer-Swink, tells residents, “to see that where the housing goes, the sidewalks go, and the transit station goes, and the stores go, and the parks go, and it all works together.”

How local governments can helpUrban development is complicated, which is why government is needed to set some rules, resolve conflicts and supply needed infrastructure. Start with housing. Upscale brings the offices and the shoppers, but it’s lower-income folks who most need public transit, the TTA’s Amanda Arnold says. The doctors will still drive their Mercedes to Duke Hospital, she laughs, but the rest of the staff are all candidates for the train.

Arnold’s been working with a Triangle J Council of Governments committee studying how to put upscale and subsidized housing together around transit. “Local government could require it,” she says. “But I haven’t seen a good model yet for how to do it.”

Downtown, people want good sidewalks, crosswalks and lighting to feel safe. In Raleigh, Ann Franklin says a residents group is forming at the Park Devereaux condos. They’re going to lobby City Council for pedestrian improvements. The biggest: Returning streets–especially the north-south streets like Dawson and McDowell–to two-way traffic so the cars will SLOW DOWN.

Then, as the DOT’s D’Ignazio points out, a train line begets the need for connecting buses, shuttles, trolleys, whatever’s needed to get people from the station stop to their destination–especially important for the TTA since so many of its stops will be at the edge of things rather than in the middle. Local governments can run shuttles. N.C. State and Duke already run them, as do some RTP companies. A few hardy passengers will walk if there’s no bus, or ride their bikes (TTA cars will have bike racks), but the experts say that number drops almost to zero if the trek is more than half a mile.

What every station needs, therefore, is a plan that people, developers and government officials draw up together–and then follow. TTA can plant the flags, it can buy land for station stops and parking, and it can be a co-developer with anyone who’ll build over the parking decks. But it can’t make the plans for what goes next door, or down the block, and it can’t pay for the infrastructure improvements needed to attract developers. That’s local government’s job.

The planning work is underway, but so far it’s pretty spotty. Durham has a long-standing downtown renewal plan, and it’s beginning to show benefits. But the city has yet to do detailed station-area planning. Cary’s busy drawing up a town center around its station stop. They do that kind of thing in Cary. And they’re starting to do it in Raleigh too, now that the conservatives’ grip on City Hall has been broken. A West Side coalition is working with Watson Brown of the city planning department to figure out the downtown station. They’re raising money to pay a consultant, and a public charette is planned so that everyone can have a say.

“There’s just a whole lot of planning to do,” Brown says.

In the planners’ defense, the TTA didn’t designate final station sites until recently, and a couple–like Duke–are still in doubt.

“City government is the key,” says developer Roland Gammon, not sounding so disinterested after all. Warming to the subject, he lays out exactly what government should do. Lead the planning. Buy the land. Engage a “master developer” who knows what you want. He suggests a couple of names. The master brings in “product developers”–like him–who do condos, or mixed-use projects, or whatever.

“That puts it into digestible chunks,” he says. “Maybe the city buys the land for $8 million to $9 million and sells it for $6 million, but they’re getting a $400,000 a year benefit from the extra property taxes, and they’re meeting their other goals.

“Otherwise,” Gammon says, “you’re just taking too many chances that a developer is going to come in and think it’s worth it to him to do the right thing.” EndBlock