On a rainy evening last week, dozens of people crammed into the cozy Boylan Bridge Brewpub, just up the hill from the site of Raleigh’s future Union Station.

The crowd was in good spirits, and not just because the beer was flowing; the event marked the kickoff of advocacy group WakeUp Wake County’s fundraising efforts to get a half-cent sales tax referendum before county voters next fall, and then to get the measurewhich is projected to raise $69 million a yearpassed.

“Nothing will happen if we don’t pass this referendum,” says Karen Rindge, WakeUp’s founder and executive director. “We are leading a grassroots effort.”

But while the transit campaign is underway, the county has already shifted its focus away from regional rail; it’s likely, in fact, that none of the money from the referendum will go toward rail in Wake Countyat least not any time soon.

Wake’s Transit Advisory Committee, comprising about 70 community stakeholders and elected officials, voted last week to funnel money first and foremost into Wake’s beleaguered bus system. If Wake County Commissioners sign off, the county’s investment in its buses would quadruple. High-capacity buses would run more frequently and cover more terrain. A bus rapid transit (BRT) systemmeaning dedicated lanes and buses that have priority over other trafficwould spread across 22 miles.

The need for better buses is clear. Even so, this option moves the county away from a commuter rail system, which would have run from Garner to downtown Raleigh to Cary, before reaching a terminus at Research Triangle Park. There, it was hoped, it would eventually link up with the proposed Durham-Orange County light-rail line.

“The disadvantage for Wake is that rail doesn’t happen as soon, not in the first five years or so,” Rindge says.

The question, then, is whether rail delayed is rail deniedin other words, if not now, will it ever happen?

County leaders insist it will. What they’re really doing, they say, is shifting from a Wake-only rail to a regional one involving four countiesWake, Johnston, Durham and Orangethat will be paid for with federal and state dollars, not local sales taxes.

“We will be developing that rail plan as soon as we pass the referendum,” promises County Commissioner Sig Hutchinson, chairman of the commission’s transit committee. “Nothing is slowing us down on continuing to develop that rail plan, but the emphasis in the past has been on Wake County, and my interpretation is we need to think more regionally as we think about commuter rail.”

Hutchinson says working with the surrounding counties will make the project a better sell to Congress, which would have to approve it.

“There are two things you need to get funding: a strong project and a local revenue source,” says U.S. Rep. David Price, whose district covers large swaths of Wake, Orange and Durham. “I think the regional rail piece makes it so much stronger on merit. It will make it a stronger candidate for funding.”

Of course, Price admits, there will be fierce competition for those federal dollars.

“I would not underestimate the challenge of keeping the funding level, given we’re competing with cities around the country,” Price says. “Every year, there are many, many competitors for funding. We need to really go after this and have a convincing plan.”

[page]

Convincing a (presumably) Republican future Congress to sign off is one thing. (Price, the top-ranking Democrat on the transportation appropriations subcommittee, is well-positioned to advocate for rail.) Convincing the very Republican General Assembly to follow suit will be another. The Legislature has proven hostile to mass-transit projects. In this year’s legislative session, lawmakers imposed a $500,000 cap on state funding for light rail, which, if not repealed, probably dooms Durham’s light-rail line.

Price says he believes the cap “can and must be removed,” adding that there “are people with very firm intentions to repeal that ill-advised cap. But just repealing the cap won’t do it. We need work by the governor and others down the road to secure the state’s support.”

Expanding mass-transit options (including light rail) in high-growth areas is included in Gov. McCrory’s long-term transportation plan. But conservative lawmakers have thus far shown little inclination to work with him on this issue.

In a statement, N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson pledged the McCrory administration’s support for mass-transit projects, including light rail: “The Governor has been very clear that adding a light rail cap was a mistake … . We know that today’s younger workforce and competitive industries want to locate where they have more transit options and greater connectivity.” Light rail, he continued, will promote “job growth and quality of life, and continued collaboration among all state and local leaders is the most productive way to make that happen.”

Daniel Rodriguez, a distinguished professor of sustainable community design at UNC-Chapel Hill, says there is no research to show that one kind of public transit is inherently better than another, and that “detractors of public transportation will generally use the wedge of ‘which one do we pick?’ as a way to divide the public.”

Rodriguez echoes Rindge’s statement that the most important thing Wake County can do is pass the transit referendum.

“No matter what transportation mode one supports, rail or bus, the most important aspect is that public transportation needs additional support in the area,” Rodriguez says. “Many cities get caught up in one mode or another, rail or bus, but I think that is not the important fight. It’s about supporting transportation generally, regardless.”

Nationally known transit consultant Jarrett Walker and his team, as well as local consultants Kimley-Horn and Associates, will hammer out details and actually write the transit plan this month; it will be unveiled in December. Following a public-comment period, Wake County’s Board of Commissioners will vote, likely next spring, to put the plan on the November 2016 ballot.

Meanwhile, WakeUP Wake County and local leaders are putting an optimistic spin on these latest developments. “I know some people felt like delaying commuter rail was like saying we’re not going to do it,” says Rindge. “But really, it’s just delaying the start of it, and being more aggressive with buses.”

“This is good news,” Hutchinson adds. “We really have needed to look at this regionally, as opposed to the optics of the constrained Wake-only view. When the light goes green at the state and federal level for a regional project, we’ll be ready to go. I assure you as a county commissioner that this is going to happen.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Stalled in the tracks”