The final report of the Special Transit Advisory Commissionall 48 pages of it plus the hefty appendices, comes down to one word: Buses. For the foreseeable future, public transit in the Triangle will be on a bus. The commuter trains and streetcars imagined in the STAC process are at least a decade away, and for the trains, two decades or more.

Even beefing up regional bus service will require new funding. The 29-member group backed a regional 1/2-cent sales tax for transit, which if enacted in Wake, Durham and Orange counties, would yield more than $80 million a year now and an estimated $5 billion total by 2035.

Once enacted, the sales tax (or any new tax) could be used by Triangle Transit to buy more buses for its existing express routes, increase the frequency of service, and create new routes to the region’s edges and beyond.

Meanwhile, Triangle Transit could also resume building a regional rail system. But no part of that systema planned 56-mile route linking Chapel Hill, Durham, RTP, Cary, Raleigh and northeast Raleighcould be finished in less than seven years from when new money becomes available, and most of it would take far longer than that, according to the STAC report.

A financial forecast sketched by the report has the full rail line costing $2.27 billion, not accounting for inflation, and opening in stages between 2017 and 2024. An even more cautionary note is sounded in the report’s concluding passage: “[The Vision Plan] is ambitious, and though it may not be built until 2035, it can be built.”

Until the rail line opens, the STAC proposes that Triangle Transit run high-frequency bus service (every 15 minutes in peak times) on roads paralleling its three legs:

  • From downtown Raleigh to Durant Road/I-540 in northeast Raleigh, using Capital Boulevard;
  • From Raleigh to Durham via Cary and RTP, running part of the way, it’s proposed, on the shoulders of I-40;
  • From Durham to Chapel Hill via Duke Med on N.C. 147 and U.S. 15-501.

It also proposes to add less frequent, commuter-bus services, with four runs each in the morning and evening rush times, and just one mid-day tripfrom 15 outlying towns to either downtown Raleigh, downtown Durham or Chapel Hill/ UNC.

Holly Springs, Fuquay-Varina, Clayton/ Garner, Zebulon/ Wendell/ Knightdale, and Wake Forest would head to Raleigh; Butner, Burlington/Mebane/ Hillsborough and Person County would go to Durham; and Pittsboro/ southern Alamance County would travel to Chapel Hill.

How fast any of this would happen is a political question the STAC report doesn’t answer or try to anticipate. Much depends on the General Assembly, which empaneled its blue-ribbon “21st Century Transportation Committee” to study the state’s highway and transit needs. The 21st’s four subcommittees have made their reports; the next full committee meeting is Tuesday, May 13, the day the General Assembly reconvenes for the 2008 short session.

The subcommittee studying transit has recommended that the state pay 25 percent of the cost of rail and bus projects in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the Triad and the Triangle, up to a total of $1.6 billion over the next 12 years. State funding would be contingent on a “robust” local match along the lines of the 1/2-cent sales tax that Charlotte already has and that the STAC is proposing here.

There are several funding scenarios for a regional transit plan:

  • The General Assembly could adopt a funding scheme this session or, more likely, in 2009 after a new governor is elected.
  • Some or all of the Triangle counties could lobby the General Assembly in ’09 or ’10 for the required authorization to enact the 1/2-cent sales tax for transit.
  • County voters could decide in referenda held in 2010.
  • Finally, depending on which counties approve it, “enhanced” bus services could start in part or all of the region by 2011.

The STAC report calls for an additional 25 buses on the road in 2011 and a total of 150 more by 2035. In addition, it says, 42 buses now running on routes that would be made superfluous by the rail line could be re-assigned when rail is operational.

The laggard could be Wake County, however. Wake is eyeing another billion-dollar-plus bond issue for schools in the next two years, and the county commissioners are notoriously tax-averse; they’ve made no move toward using either the 1/4-cent sales tax authority or the 0.4 percent land-transfer tax that the General Assembly authorized last year as a way for counties to fund growth.

And it’s unclear how Wake would divide a 1/2-cent transit tax, if it had one, between Triangle Transitfor regional servicesand local bus companies in Raleigh and Cary.

A “circulator” system envisioned by Raleighbuses, then streetcarsmight need some of the funds, though the STAC says Raleigh should be pay for itditto the circulator plans for Durham and Chapel Hill. Only an RDU-RTP circulator, perhaps running on rails, should be financed regionally, the STAC says.

Wake Commission Chair Joe Bryan, a Republican, has discussed taking a “quality of life” bond package to voters that would include additional sales-tax levies for new schools and transit (but not the land-transfer tax). So far, though, it’s just talk.

The STAC report now goes to the region’s two transportation planning agencies, which created it and appointed the members. Bryan chairs one of them, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Commission (CAMPO). The other is DCHC, which serves Durham, Chapel Hill and Carrboro.