They have a vision: transit throughout the Triangle by 2035, starting with an ambitious “2020 Plan” for commuter rail and enhanced bus service. But the absence of money to pay for any of itand disagreement over how optimistic to be about future fundingbrought members of the Special Transit Advisory Commission (STAC) up short at what was supposed to the group’s climactic session Friday.

The 29 members spent the day sorting through the 18 transit corridors they’ve included in their 2035 scheme, finally fixing on the three that most members thought should be the backbone of a 2020 plan:

  • A 21-mile corridor paralleling U.S. 15-501 from Chapel Hill/ UNC Hospital to Durham/ DukeMed, for which light-rail transit, rather than buses, was the consensus choice;
  • The 28-mile Durham/ DukeMed to downtown Raleigh rail corridor;
  • The 10-mile downtown Raleigh to Interstate 540/ North Raleigh rail corridor, which tracks alongside Capital Boulevard.

In other words, the STAC was on the verge of recommending virtually the same three-part plan proposed by the Triangle Transit Authority in 1995, which was adopted by both of the region’s federally designated transportation planning agencies.

Some 12 years later, déjà vu?

But then the question of money intruded.

A “Charlotte level of effort”meaning the Triangle’s three counties would agree to adopt the additional half-cent sales tax for transit that Charlotte-Mecklenburg approved a decade agowould yield $82 million a year today and grow at least 5 percent annually, said TTA General Manager David King.

Add a 25 percent “share” from the state (the same as in Charlotte) and perhaps some form of property-tax support from Raleigh, Durham and the other municipalities to be served, King said, and a 2020 capital spending program of about $1.05 billion would be possiblewhile also covering operating costseven if there’s no money coming from Washington.

The Federal Transportation Administration “led [TTA] down the aisle and then left us at the altar,” King said, when in 2006 it refused to support construction of the Durham-to-Raleigh rail system after putting some $100 million into design and land acquisition for the project. TTA officials argue that the FTA changed the rules and pulled the rug out from under transit projects all over the country because of Bush administration budget cuts. In other states, influential members of Congress saved projects with special appropriations; North Carolina’s two senators didn’t back the TTA’s project, however.

Without federal funding, though, the gap between the capital funds even potentially available (the $1.05 billion) and the cost of building the three 2020 links, a total of 59 corridor miles, would be roughly another $1 billion, transit officials estimate.

Because of this gap, when the STAC broke into four working groups, one of them omitted part of the Durham-to-Raleigh corridor from its list of recommendations. That group, spearheaded by former Raleigh Mayor Smedes York, suggested that the 2020 plan include downtown Raleigh to Cary, but omit the Cary-to-Durham/Duke portion. Their idea, in effect, was to start building “in” from the edges (Chapel Hill, North Raleigh) toward the middle, rather than start in the middle and build “out.”

Sandy Ogburn, a former Durham city councilor and TTA trustee, disagreed with omitting downtown Durham, however.

“What we should do is say, ‘What’s the need in the region?’ and put a price tag on it,” she argued. “Why be constrained [in our vision] by money that we don’t have anyway?”

Countered York: “The constraint is the money we think we can get.”

So after seven months and a dozen meetings, the STAC must meet at least once more to thrash out the answers to some fundamental issues before staffers can begin drafting its final recommendations. The issues:

Pick a start?

Orange County’s representatives want the U.S. 15-501 corridor included in any initial plan; Wake County’s favor the Capital Boulevard route, plus downtown Raleigh to Cary. But if you can’t build it all, would you really start at the edges and leave out RTP, RDU and most of Durham? The ’95 plan went the other way, proposing to build in the middle first, with 15-501 designated Phase 2. Ogburn’s argument is, let the politicians sort that question out.

Quickest or safest?

Says Jennifer Lewis, a Sierra Club representative, the challenge for the region is: “What can we do now with the highest chance of success?” Other members agree. But it’s a tough question to answer. The Durham-to-Raleigh corridor would be fastest to build, because it’s designed already. It rates highest of the 18 corridors studied in terms of jobs en route. But it’s middling in terms of residents per mile. TTA planners argued that dense new development would rise in the corridor when the railroad’s construction was certain, as happened in Charlotte, giving it the greatest potential to reshape the region’s sprawling land development patterns. But politically, many members fear pushing the “same old” TTA plan. The Capital Boulevard corridor was 30 percent designed before it was dropped from the former Phase 1 docket, so it wouldn’t take but a year or two more to get out of the ground. The 15-501 corridor is “reserved” for transit; however, no planning’s been done, and the required environmental impact study alone could take four or five years extra.

Buses? Circulators? TIFs?

STAC members agree that commuter rail service can’t succeed without frequent buses at every stop. The STAC’s recommended four circulator systems (using buses or streetcars) in downtown locations and at the airport, and buying as many as 200 new buses for service throughout. But there’s been no discussion, let alone agreement, about how to pay for them or who will operate them. Officials talk vaguely about local funding in the form of tax-increment financing (TIFs) or other bonds based on the new property taxes generated by transit-oriented developments, but there’s no meat on those bones yet.