WHAT “Transit Makes $en$e: What’s in It for Me, Business, & the Economy”

WHEN Thursday, Nov. 7, 4–7 p.m.

WHERE Marbles Kids Museum, 201 E. Hargett St., Raleigh

MORE INFO Wake Up Wake County website

He’s a team builder, a visionary. He’ll provide a spark, inspire, get everybody thinking about big, bold, innovative ideasand working together to make them happen. Clearly, Raleigh will need some taller buildings, because the way Mayor Nancy McFarlane went on Friday about the new city manager, Ruffin Hall, he could leap over anything in town.

Thus we come to the question of the day, which is mass transit in Raleigh and Wake County. Will Hall be as powerful as a commuter-rail locomotive? As fast as bus rapid transit? Bold thoughts abound in Raleigh, but some conflict with others. Meanwhile, we have some big obstacles to transit, starting with the biggest of all: Wake County Commissioner Paul Coble.

As effusive as McFarlane was about Hall’s leadership skills, the primary message she conveyedand the reason she and other council members are so sold on Hall as the right man in the right placeis that he arrives with a strong track record of matching transit plans with growth and development. As assistant city manager in Charlotte, Hall was responsible for transportation initiatives ranging from the new streetcar line to the bike-sharing program, and from adding sidewalks and bike lanes to extending the Charlotte area light-rail transit service. He was in charge of seeing that the development boom, almost as strong in Charlotte as in Raleigh, didn’t clog the roads with cars.

Not that we’re jealous of Charlotte, but the Queen City got serious about transit 20 years ago. Raleigh, still in the starting gate, is 20 years behind. It’s embarrassing.

But here’s the thing: 2014 will be the year of transit for Raleigh if, and it’s a big if, the city’s leadersand their ideascan be united behind a single plan strong enough to win over the Wake electorate. It starts with McFarlane. But given how government works in Raleigh, she can’t do it without a strong manager at her sideor better, who has her back. She has the bully pulpit. But he has every department head and staffer reporting to him. Putting the plan together is his job.

As I write this, I don’t know the results of Tuesday’s elections. I’m assuming that the $810 million Wake school bond issue passed as well as Raleigh’s $75 million transportation bond issue and that McFarlane was re-elected in a landslide.

If so, the 2014 campaign season begins today with transit as its focus. Coble, a Republican, will run for re-election, and the GOP will defend all four of its county commission seats. Lose any and they’ll cede control to the Democrats, who hold three seats through 2016.

The big question is whether Coble and the Republicans will continue to block a referendum on a half-cent sales tax increase for transit in Wake County, identical to the one approved by Durham County voters in 2011 and Orange County voters in 2012. Durham and Orange, along with Triangle Transit, are working together on plans for a light-rail line between Chapel Hill and Durham and improved bus services. Wake, the third leg of the Research Triangle, is on the sidelines.

While the Wake school bond was debated, the half-cent tax issue was shunted aside. But proponents want it on the ballot in 2014. If Republicans refuse, Democrats will argue that Coble & Co. must be voted out before the public can be heard.

Coble is conservative, but no one’s ever accused him of not knowing how to play politics. So in September, after two years of stonewalling, Coble suddenly called for a review of the Wake transit plan written in 2011 by County Manager David Cooke, Triangle Transit and local officials. Coble didn’t veil his intentions. The review, by “experts” picked by the Republicans, will result in a finding that the planwhich calls for doubling the number of buses in the county while setting aside money for light-rail service between Raleigh and Cary and for commuter trains between Raleigh and Durhamis wasteful and should be junked.

Then, if proponents insist on the half-cent tax referendum, I predict that the Republicans will give it to them, and base their re-election campaign on saving Wake from the big-spending liberals.

Coble’s maneuver caught transit proponents off guard. They were doubly surprised when the Regional Transportation Alliance, a leadership group consisting of corporate members and 23 business groups including the influential Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, called for a new plan based on bus rapid transit (BRT) instead of rail. “While RTA has endorsed a BRT-based approach,” it said, “we have not endorsed a BRT plan … because one does not yet exist.”

One doesn’t exist, and no one’s working on one.

So the ball is now in Raleigh’s court, which means Hall, who officially starts next month, has a big job to do and not much time to do it. The city council endorsed the 2011 Wake plan. But in truth, the city has done little to match its growth to the rail-transit elements of the plan, which go back not 20 years but 30. Instead, Raleigh’s high-density developments have been spread around like the sprawl that preceded them. Neither rail nor BRT is ideal for what Raleigh has now. The question is, what’s coming?

In my view, the Wake plan is sound but unexciting. It would be helped by two or three BRT-style lines serving, say, North Hills, Capital Boulevard and Crabtree Valley-Edwards Mill Road-Blue Ridge Road.

I’m not planner, though. Hall is. He’ll call the plays for the Raleigh team and McFarlane will try to execute them. But right now, they have their chamber of commerce running right, council members going in circles and no passing attack to speak of. What they need is a vision. And a spark.

This article appeared in print with the headline “The energizer.”