The Wake County transit plan—which has its primary funding source, a half-cent sales tax hike, on the ballot on November 8—promises to bring long-needed upgrades to the current bus system. But the activists who’ve spent years and decades fighting for these improvements are questioning why it’s taken so long. And, with relief finally on the horizon, some are wondering what improved public transit could mean for Raleigh’s burgeoning gentrification problem—in other words, whether the light at the end of the tunnel is really an oncoming train.

It’s no secret who primarily rides the bus: working-class people of color. According to a GoRaleigh customer survey taken last fall, 68 percent of bus riders are African American; another 10 percent are Hispanic. A quarter of riders make less than $15,000 a year, and nearly half make less than $30,000 per year.

In many ways, the story of Raleigh’s bus system, which was taken over by the city in 1975, mirrors what’s happened elsewhere in the South.

“Most urban bus systems in the United States, there’s what they call ‘needs riders’ and ‘choice riders,’” says Gerry Cohen, a former special counsel to the General Assembly who supports the referendum. “So most urban transit systems, especially in the South, served the black community and working-class neighborhoods. And the white suburbs grew, and transit wasn’t expanded.”

That’s not completely the county’s fault. Until the state granted Wake County the authority to raise a tax for transit funding in 2009, there was no funding to pursue aggressive improvements. After Republicans, led by commissioner and former Raleigh mayor Paul Coble, took control of the board in 2010, they repeatedly derailed votes on transit, specifically citing concerns about the cost of light rail.

But having taken unanimous control of the board in 2014, all seven Democratic commissioners voted earlier this year to put the Wake County transit plan on the ballot. If approved by voters, the referendum will bring $2.3 billion over the next twenty years into a transit plan designed to improve service and infrastructure and add bus rapid transit and commuter rail.

Current riders want more than just better service, however. Ty Henderson, director of the transportation justice group Capital Bus Riders Association, says that a lack of amenities is a huge issue for low-income riders. Bus shelters are particularly problematic: in the aforementioned GoRaleigh survey, 32 percent of respondents said they were either “very dissatisfied” or “dissatisfied” with bus stop amenities—i.e., shelters, lights, and benches. That was the second-most common complaint after the lack of weekend service. But in that same survey, among GoTriangle riders—who were 50 percent white and generally wealthier—only 19 percent complained about amenities.

Recently, Henderson posted photos to his group’s Twitter account that contrasted stops in southeast Raleigh and stops near the N.C. State campus and Cameron Village. None of the southeast Raleigh stops pictured had shelters, while those in west Raleigh did. One stop in southeast Raleigh didn’t even have a sidewalk. That, advocates say, is a demonstration of institutional indifference toward black riders.

On the Wolfline near N.C. State, Henderson says, “No one has to wait out in the rain and the cold. It’s not the same in southeast Raleigh. We live in the same city, but we have two different classes.”

Referendum advocates say their plan can help fix the disparity in amenities.

“[The] lack of bus shelters is a major problem,” says Wake County commissioner John Burns. “Bus rapid transit is going to be a big change for people in that. If we do that the right way, BRT has stations instead of stops. It’s a lot different from what people are used to seeing.”

But beyond more immediate problems, like the need for more bus shelters, the issue of gentrification looms large. Activist Octavia Rainey points to America’s biggest transportation program in the twentieth century—the Interstate Highway System—as an example of how transit improvements can displace disadvantaged people.

“If you went through downtown [in the past], downtown was full of nothing but black neighborhoods,” Rainey says. “Those neighborhoods are gone because of anti-poverty programs and highway programs, which is nothing but transit. The bottom line is that we have a lot to be fearful of.”

The highway system, of course, led to white flight and the resulting urban decay. Wake County commissioners, however, argue that the plan will make life better for its current riders—and, along with a good affordable housing strategy, will help prevent displacement.

“One of the key aspects of gentrification is that people in gentrifying communities see an increase in cost of living,” Wake County commissioner Matt Calabria says. “Transit decreases cost of living and enables people who maybe don’t have cars to go to the store or the doctor or their job.”

“My organization is committed to advocating for a strong affordable housing strategy as transit goes forward,” says WakeUP Wake County executive director Karen Rindge. “We’ve learned from other cities if you plan ahead before you put in that line, we can work with the city and the county to put in a plan so people can afford to live. Gentrification is already happening with our lousy transit system.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “Back of the Bus”