The Triangle won’t always be about sprawl, will it? At some point, we’ll have to start backfilling our downtowns and choosing transportation corridors for dense development. Otherwise, we’re going to run out of land, gasoline and patience for the gridlock–yes? Well, that’s the idea behind the Triangle Transit Authority’s first commuter rail project–to trigger the change and create the “spine” onto which a regional rail-and-bus transit system can be grafted in decades to come.

Will it work?

If you’re a transit fan, no doubt you’ve read (perhaps in last week’s Citizen column, “Planners muscle up,” or heard about the problems the TTA’s been having: Its ridership estimates for the project are messed up, consequently, the project’s been knocked off the federal-funding track at least temporarily. And while Congress last month was wrapping up the new, six-year $284 billion–with a “b”–transportation authorization act, and senators from Virginia, Oregon and California were greasing the rails for their pet transit projects, no one from North Carolina had a thumb on the scales for the TTA.

Thus, our rail project remains in limbo in this, its 11th hour–or 11th year, actually. Virtually all the engineering and design work is done, and more than 90 percent of the land needed for the stations and track bought, with the feds helping so far to the tune of more than $80 million. Construction is ready to go. But without the feds’ renewed blessing, and another $320 million of their money, it’s not going anywhere.

TTA General Manager John Claflin says a big problem in Washington is that the Federal Transportation Agency, which vets transit projects from all over the country, has developed serious doubts about his. That’s because, he thinks, most projects they see are some form of hub-and-spoke system–that is, they start from a center-city destination, and they runs rail or bus lines out along populated corridors. But the TTA’s rail line is very different. It’s designed to connect multiple locations that are: one, considered both destinations and origins both; and two, located along a rail freight corridor that is, for much of its length, pretty darned unpopulated.

Are you sure you’ll have riders? the FTA keeps asking.

But Claflin, who came to the TTA three years ago after a long career of helping transit take off in Portland and Denver, is absolutely convinced that transit here will be a winner too, starting with this rail line, as soon as it’s given a chance.

Call him Pollyanna, but he’s hardly alone. The TTA rail line’s been on the drawing boards officially since the mid-’90s (some people had something like it in mind in the ’80s), and since then virtually every planner and elected official who mattered in Raleigh, Cary, Durham or Chapel Hill has been for it. The state supports it, too–with the Easley administration signing a commitment to pay 20 percent of the cost to build it (local sources, another 20 percent; the feds–it’s hoped–60 percent).

Why are they all so gung-ho? Because they foresee this rail line turning into the biggest economic development generator for the region since Research Triangle Park itself. And they see it starting to turn the direction of development here away from sprawl and toward more “sustainable” and efficient growth.

Still, there were always doubters out there–conservatives like John Locke Foundation President John Hood, who said sprawl would persist because people here liked the suburbs. And as the ’90s became the ’00s, and progress on the project slowed while projected costs shot up, up, up–the result of inflation in the price of steel, concrete and construction labor–the doubters have gotten louder, says board chair Carter Worthy, and the TTA’s “natural allies” among progressives and environmentalists a bit discouraged.

Last week’s TTA board meeting did little to clarify the issues dogging the project, and in some ways it made things look even worse. An expected revision of the ridership estimates, a critical step toward obtaining federal funding, wasn’t finished on schedule. But a new cost estimate was finished, and it showed the project’s price tag jumping once again, from $631 million to $689 million (both numbers expressed in 2005 dollars, meaning what the project would cost if you built it right now, which obviously isn’t happening; actual costs will be higher still).

Moreover, sparks flew across the board table over what to do in the U.S. 15-501 corridor between Durham and Chapel Hill, which is supposed to be where transit goes next once the first rail line is up and running.

There was some good news, though: A candidate for the job of “master developer” emerged–one with blue-chip credentials–to help the TTA get growth going around its first 12 station sites.

All in all, it seemed like a good time to take a deep breath and try to answer–get TTA folks to answer, anyway–some obvious questions that people are asking about the project. Questions that run the gamut from “What’s wrong now?” to “What’s the long-range vision for transit in the Triangle, and how does this rail line figure in it?” Small questions to large, in other words.

Based on interviews with top TTA board members and staff and a reading of some key documents, here’s where we seem to be.

1. Is this rail line actually going to get built?
Yes, it is. Eventually. Getting a transit project from conception to start-up is a long, tedious process, and while the TTA’s founders hoped it could be done by now, realistically the project was more or less on schedule until a year ago, when the problem with its ridership estimates caused the FTA to give it a temporary “Not Rated” rating. Now it’s a year behind, and if the problem’s not fixed by mid-October, good chance it’ll fall another year behind. And it’s a bad time to fall back–federal funding for transit is tight, and other competitors around the country are moving fast toward construction the same way TTA did. Still, the Triangle’s among the nation’s fastest-growing metro areas, so with each passing year, the potential ridership for transit here increases. Right now, TTA’s target date to start construction is the end of this year, with a late 2008 opening. But that could easily slip.

2. What was wrong with the ridership estimates?
According to TTA officials, the estimates were produced using a complex demographic model that the state and all the other transportation planning agencies in the Triangle use, too, and that the feds helped pay for. But it turns out the model was flawed, as the feds discovered when they started questioning what it predicted for the TTA. The most notorious glitch, though not the only one, was what it said about traffic congestion in the Triangle circa 2030–it forecast that, at peak travel times, a Raleigh-to-Durham bus trip would take four hours and 18 minutes. This was its estimate for the worst-case, do-nothing alternative, it should be noted–the model is supposed to help assess your project against the various alternatives to it, including doing nothing–but even so, four hours-plus set off the alarm bells in Washington, and soon the model was history.

Now, when a model with many variables and sources of data is predicting outcomes you know can’t be right, it’s not always easy to figure out why, exactly, and fix it. In this case, it took TTA’s consultants and the staff at the FTA, working together, until last week to fix it, and it’s going to take another month at least for the revised model to generate new, hopefully reliable ridership estimates. That will bring the TTA perilously close to the Oct. 15 deadline for getting the FTA’s recommendation to be funded in the next Bush administration budget. Failure to make that deadline isn’t a complete disaster. But it’s not good either.

That’s one problem. The other one, as FTA Administrator Jennifer Dorn said in an Aug. 1 letter to the Triangle’s congressional delegation, is that the Bush administration will “target” its funding recommendations to projects with at least a medium rating on cost-effectiveness; in the past, FTA recommended projects rated medium-low, which is where the TTA was the last time it was rated. But with funding tight, it’s upped the ante for applicants.

With the cost side of its project rising, the TTA has to hope the new model, and the Triangle’s growth, combine to push its ridership numbers up even more.

3. OK, here’s an easier question–why doesn’t the rail line go to the airport?
This is a red herring, frankly, but it’s the first question everybody asks when the subject of TTA rail comes up. It’s also the question the doubters have used most successfully to sow their doubts–as in, “It doesn’t even go to the airport.” So, much as the TTA folks hate to hear it again, they always try to smile when they answer: Because it would cost $280 million more, and you’d only get 400 more riders a day. Or else they answer: We will go to the airport–with shuttle bus connections from at least two of the nearest stations (RTP and Cary Northwest) that’ll be as good as what you get now if you drive to the airport and park in one of its remote lots.

Long story short: The rail line is west of I-40 at the airport, and getting over or under I-40 would be a huge expense. Plus, the airport itself insists that any rail spur be under, rather than over, lest planes hit it as they come in from the west. Finally, even if there were a station at the airport, you’d still need a shuttle to reach the terminals, presumably.

Claflin says other transit systems that do connect to airports pick up far more employees than passengers, and RDU is a relatively small airport that just doesn’t have that many employees (compared to, say, 25,000 employees at Duke, where the TTA does want to go). Moreover, the fact that our airport is conveniently located in the middle of the region, 15 minutes from everywhere, and not way out in the hinterlands like a lot of others, is why a survey commissioned by the TTA and the airport authority predicted that a rail connection to RDU would generate only 200-400 more riders a day.

4. So where does the rail line go–why are we building it in a freight corridor, for goodness sake?
That’s right, the line follows a main freight corridor from a pair of stops in downtown Durham to two in downtown Raleigh, which means it skirts the Research Triangle Park and goes right through the middle of Cary. In all, the 12 station stops en route cover 28 miles; planned extensions in Durham (out to Duke) and in Raleigh (to three North Raleigh stops) would add another seven miles of track.

TTA’s leaders picked the route a decade ago in part because they thought it would be cheap (i.e., using an existing corridor through dying industrial zones versus, say, trying to build a new line down U.S. 70 or I-40 with lots of flyovers and teardowns needed). It’s proven to be more expensive than expected, however, because the rail freight companies don’t want to share their space, and under federal law they don’t have to; so TTA’s having to pay to widen much of the corridor to make room for its own two sets of tracks (one each way).

The biggest reason the corridor was picked, however, was because it was so empty–and yet so close to the Triangle’s major employment centers. The development possibilities en route were considered–and are turning out to be–huge. Witness, for example, the American Tobacco project in Durham, which is along the line. Witness the condos starting to go up in downtown Raleigh. And that’s only the beginning, the TTA folks think. Their study–by yet another consultant–guesstimated $2.1 billion worth of new economic development around the first 16 station stops by 2025. That would mean some $229 million a year–every year–in new tax revenues to the region and the state, according to the consultants.

Do we believe that?

Hold on a minute. We need to talk about local bus connections and future transit corridors first, before we get to that.

5. Fine, local bus connections. Let’s say I come into the downtown Raleigh station, but it’s blocks from where I work. What then?
Good question. A key to whether the rail system will work or not is having frequent bus shuttles to meet the trains, TTA officials say. But the planning for them seems spotty so far. One reason: Raleigh, Durham, Cary and Chapel Hill all have their own bus systems, as does Duke and NCSU. And the TTA runs a bus system itself between municipalities. For purposes of supporting its train customers when they come into a station, TTA would obviously be better off if it could take over the bus service itself–that way, when a TTA train arrived in downtown Raleigh, to use your example, it could be certain a TTA bus (or trolley) would be there to collect the passengers and take them over to the Progress Energy building, say, or the Wachovia building.

Well, TTA tried for bus consolidation last year, but Raleigh said no, and so did Chapel Hill. In Raleigh, the City Council demurred mainly because it doesn’t run that many buses, and members worried that a good bus system might cost the city too much money. In Chapel Hill, the problem was the opposite: The free buses there are a hit, and the Town Council wondered whether the financially strapped TTA could run them as well.

The July 2005 “bus fleet management plan” that TTA submitted to the feds as part of its funding application lists the local bus routes that will connect to its rail stations. The document reveals a problem: TTA trains are going to run every 15 minutes during peak hours, 30 minutes off-peak; but many of the bus connections are every 30 minutes at peak, longer or non-existent off-peak. That means, unless you’re arriving on the right train, you’re in for a lot of waiting.

On the other hand, it’s still early in the process–Raleigh’s bus planning, for example, only goes out to 2008, which is before the train stations will even be open. TTA is confident the local bus systems will step up to the need once it’s demonstrated. And there is some really good bus/shuttle planning going on out there, too. For example, companies in Research Triangle Park are planning to meet the trains with their own shuttles, and Rick Weddle, CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation, says the park’s new 50-year master plan will probably include people movers–like those at Disney World–in anticipation that employment in the park will grow (the early estimate is from 38,000 to 58,000 by 2025) and the wide open spaces between buildings will fill in. NCSU, too, has a people-mover in its plans to connect the older North Campus to the new Centennial Campus and to the TTA rail station at Reynolds Coliseum. A connection from Centennial through the Dorothea Dix property to downtown Raleigh is also possible in the future using another old rail corridor.

6 Yes, what about future rail and bus corridors? After this first rail line, is there a plan for expanding the system?
Yes and no. There’s a definite intention to expand. What’s missing is a plan for where the new routes will go, when, or what form–buses? rail?–they’ll take. And that’s unfortunate, Claflin admits, because without a clearer vision of a transit system, it’s harder for people to see the importance of building the first stage. So he’s pressing the region’s two MPOs–the metropolitan planning organizations–to help the TTA write a composite master plan for transit, which both agencies are expected to do.

Yes, the region has two MPOs to do its transportation planning, which is one more than we really need. Stay with us here: the DCHC (Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro) MPO is more pro-transit, officials say, while CAMPO (Capital Area, meaning Wake County) is more pro-roads. That’s reflected in their respective long-range plans: DCHC projects transportation spending in its area at $6.1 billion between now and 2025, with about half of it ($3.1 billion) for transit; in contrast, CAMPO projects spending of $7.9 billion, with just $2.2 billion for transit.

Both agencies have endorsed the TTA rail project, however. The real question now is, what future expansions will they support, if any? And will their leaders–the mayors and elected officials of our local governments–help the TTA get more local tax money to push things ahead?

First, the expansions. In the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro realm, the U.S. 15-501 corridor is on deck, and that MPO actually picked out a specific route for it near the highway, leaving open the question whether it should be used for rail service (extending the first rail line past Duke to Chapel Hill) or for a separate express bus service. However, Durham officials haven’t protected the chosen route–the county let a school be built right in the middle of it, and South Square Mall was redeveloped with a big-box store in the way. That’s what caused the sparks at last week’s TTA meeting. Durham County’s representative, Commissioner Ellen Reckhow, said the route needed to be shifted to the east; Chapel Hill’s rep, Councilor Bill Strom, fumed that doing so might raise the cost of any future corridor project by–according to a TTA staff memorandum–between $15 and $29 million.

That’s indicative of the problem–even where some planning’s been done, local officials aren’t necessarily following through. But the fact is, not much detailed planning has been done.

On the western side, a preliminary look’s been taken at some sort of high-occupancy vehicle or express-bus service in the I-40/N.C. 54 corridor, but nothing further. And the western MPO’s other ideas are completely conceptual, involving the possible acquisition of old rail corridors (for instance, there’s one that runs from Durham up to Treyburn, and another that goes south along N.C. 55 to Apex) or rights-of-way next to existing roads like the Durham Freeway (N.C. 147).

On the Wake side, all the transit ideas are conceptual–according to its long-range plan, it’s looking to study possible service somewhere in the U.S. 1 corridor (Capital Boulevard), along U.S. 70 (Glenwood Avenue), down the N.C. 55 corridor (Apex to Fuquay-Varina), and out U.S. 64 (East Raleigh to Zebulon). But no dates are given. And in the meantime, the sprawl-life goes on in North Raleigh, where I-540 goes. Recently, for example, the redevelopment of the Plantation Inn, on the other side of Capital Boulevard from Triangle Town Center, could have boosted a future rail stop just to the west that the TTA’s been planning for years; but instead of insisting on a mixed-use project there, including some housing, the City Council recently approved yet another big-box strip mall, which won’t do transit much good at all.

Then there’s the funding issue. TTA now gets $12 million a year from a tax on car rentals and a $5 surcharge on car registrations. Contrast that with the $50 million Charlotte is collecting–and using–for its transit system via the half-cent regional sales tax voters approved there. TTA’s current funding is barely adequate to finance the first rail project and its regional bus service. It is “seriously underfunded,” says Carter Worthy, to do anything more.

7. So, back to my question. If the planning’s sketchy and sprawl continues, do we really think this TTA rail project is going to catch fire?
Yes, and here’s why. Developers don’t have a long-range time horizon, by and large–to them, the TTA line is off in the distance, but there’s money to be made in sprawl today. Even so, however, you can see the direction of development starting to bend toward the rail line. Greg Hatem’s among those buying up property around Raleigh’s so-called government station–the one between Glenwood South and the state government mall. Ted Reynolds is putting up a 14-story building there. Out at RTP, Craig Davis Properties’ Metro Station plan, if it all gets built, is a megadeal all by itself. And downtown Durham is finally coming alive with the redevelopment of the old tobacco plants by Capitol Broadcasting, Blue Devil Ventures and others.

The TTA’s Worthy, a developer and broker herself, says she’s surprised that more hasn’t happened already. But she sees it all coming fast once doubts about the project are resolved and the first bulldozers hit the ground–hopefully, by the end of this year.

According to Claflin, Portland in the 1970s was a lot like the Triangle today: population about 1 million; old downtown with many “infill opportunities,” also known as parking lots; “not very modern and not very progressive,” he says. But Portland put a plan in place to curb sprawl and promote transit, and it followed it; today, with a population of 2.6 million (metro area), it has 140,000 daily transit riders, a thriving downtown and lots of open space preserved around the perimeter.

Denver, too, when Claflin moved there, looked like a sorry prospect for transit in the early ’80s–in fact, he recalls that Westword, the Indy‘s alt-weekly counterpart there, hooted that its first rail line would be “the train to nowhere,” only to have it prove a rousing success from day one. Denver, too, now has some 140,000 transit riders daily, and its voters last year approved hiking their own transit sales-tax surcharge from 0.6 percent to 1 percent so the system can keep on keepin’ on out into the suburbs.

8. So if that’s the case, why do we need a “master developer?” And who is Tom Darden exactly?
Thomas Darden is CEO of Cherokee Investment Partners, a Raleigh firm that raises money–more than $1 billion from equity partners since he started it in 1990, with another $2 billion of equity and debt capital in prospect–and uses it to redevelop what it calls “environmentally impaired real estate.” That includes polluted industrial sites (“brownfields”), an abandoned General Motors plant in Canada, and 56 acres of rundown oceanfront property in Asbury Park, N.J. Cherokee says it’s the biggest such firm in the world.

Two things about Darden. He’s a former member of the TTA board, named to represent Raleigh in the ’90s by an arch-conservative mayor named Tom Fetzer. (Yes, that Tom Fetzer.) But Darden’s a Republican who’s pro-transit, and “in the density versus sprawl wars, we’re the density guys,” he says. His environmental credentials are glittering.

Cherokee isn’t the TTA’s master developer yet–it was chosen, along with its long list of partners, from among the three applicant groups, to be the one the TTA will try to cut a deal with first. A deal for what? Well, nothing less than “master planning” all future development in and around the rail line, which means aiming for the maximum possible growth by figuring out–with the TTA and with local officials and residents–exactly what should be built, and where, at each of the first 12 sites.

And not just at them, but anywhere near them where there’s land–and profits–and future transit riders to be had.

A key reason the TTA picked Cherokee: It’s not just a planner and a developer, but it’s also a financier capable of fronting the risk capital, which could speed up the development process while also sending the message to Washington that, hey, this TTA thing is for real.

There’s “no question in my mind that transit will work to change development patterns” in the Triangle, Darden says. He’s sees it every time he flies to Washington, where he can spot every transit stop by the new buildings (an estimated $30 billion worth) all around them. The only question, he adds, is the timing–“How long it will take [here] is an unknown.” But that’s no reason to wait. “I’m a firm believer in doing something earlier rather than later,” Darden says.

9. Bottom line, is the rail project worth it?
Figure it this way. Say it gets the 14,000 riders a day that TTA is predicting for starters, which as Claflin says is not really very many riders, and say they go an average of 10 miles each–Raleigh to RTP, for instance. At 50 cents a mile (AAA’s estimate of how much it costs to operate an automobile), they’ve each saved $5, less whatever the fare is, plus the time and stress of driving themselves in rush-hour traffic. Collectively, they’ve saved $70,000 a day, which translates to about $20 million a year, and that’s year one. And that’s to say nothing about the money saved by not building more roads for them.

The thing to remember, TTA says, is that a rail system is expensive to build but cheap to operate for the long haul compared to cars. And once it’s built, it generates development, which generates ridership, which increases the savings while operating and capital costs stay relatively fixed.

10. Finally, what about Sens. Dole and Burr and their support for the project? The Indy–you–seemed to question it last week … are they backing away?
No, they aren’t. A week ago, in a column about TTA that mentioned the special help three other transit projects around the country got from their U.S. senators (see above), I said “TTA officials will tell you” that the only hard-nosed Senate backer they’ve ever had was Lauch Faircloth. Well, that went too far. Faircloth was a true bring-home-the-bacon backer for the TTA, and TTA leaders used to say such things about him; but nobody there said any such a thing in my recent interviews, and in fact several said, when the talk turned to politics, that Sen. Elizabeth Dole has been a solid supporter for the TTA since she was elected in 2002. I sort of wrote that, too, but in a backhanded way that wasn’t accurate, plain and simple. I’m also told that Sen. Richard Burr, just elected last year, is following Dole’s lead on transit issues–good. And the Triangle’s three Democratic congressmen are also on board. So, no backroom deals for TTA, but otherwise, I made a mistake, and I want to correct it for the record.

Triangle Transit by the numbers

  • Estimated daily ridership when the TTA rail line starts: 14,000
  • Projected ridership by 2030: 22,000-30,000
  • Total transit ridership in the Triangle, 2004 (all bus lines, all trips): 18 million
  • Passenger capacity in a TTA rail car “pair” (with 40 standing): 200
  • Number of rail car pairs TTA expects to order initially: 24
  • Peak-time waits between trains, day one: 15 minutes
  • Peak-time waits, 2020: 10 minutes
  • Highest track elevation (in feet): 35
  • Lowest point below grade (in feet)–downtown Raleigh: 40
  • Estimated travel time (in minutes), downtown Durham to NCSU: 41
  • Estimated travel time (in minutes), downtown Cary to RTP: 12
  • Percent Triangle residents surveyed by NC Go! who support TTA rail (2004): 72

    source: TTA planning documents