It’s a rare occasion when business representatives and environmentalists, seniors and millennials, city and country dwellers all get on the same page.
But that’s what happened at the Raleigh Convention Center last week, at a public hearing on Wake County’s transit plan. Going by the dozens of mostly white, mostly affluent people who effusively praised the plan, it would be easy to conclude that it enjoys near unanimous supportand why wouldn’t it?
If voters approve the $2.3 billion November bond referendum, the county will quadruple the number of buses on the road, with significantly expanded high-frequency service and bus rapid transit corridors running in the heart of Raleigh. It will connect regionally through a commuter rail system running from Garner to Duke University. And it will add more routes and longer service hours to link residents to destinations throughout the county.
“I depend on public transportation to get around because I don’t drive,” Raleigh resident Jeff Smith said at the hearing. “I’ve been in Raleigh since 1985, and I’ve been using the bus system ever since. I’m real happy the people of Wake County will finally have an opportunity to vote to increase public transit, something that is long overdue.”
But at a listening session held the week before at Martin Street Baptist Church, it was clear that some southeast Raleigh residents have serious doubts about the plan, doubts that go beyond whether bus shelters will be sufficiently upgraded or expanded service will reach underserved routes. Some wonder if Wake’s transit plan will actually improve the quality of life for the people it’s designed to benefit mostin this case, low-income residents in Raleigh’s southeast corner, which is slated to receive more than $400 million in bond money from the plan over ten years.
“Are low-wealth communities going to benefit from this, or is this a tool by the development community to steer development on transit corridors?” asked community leader Dan Coleman.
Coleman, city government watchdog Octavia Rainey, and former Raleigh Transit Authority member Dwight Spencer spoke about a deep distrust felt by the mostly African-American residents who rely on city buses have toward the transit system, which they say has been expensive, inequitable, and unreliable for years.
“I do have reservations about supporting this plan, and I do believe black people have been punished. Our voices have not been heard,” Rainey said.
To Coleman, the plan looks like a way for the city to “finish wiping out the east Raleigh community” through redevelopment. He’s particularly worried about having bus rapid transit in the New Bern Avenue corridor, which he believes will lead to upscale development that will drive property values out of the reach of many current residents. In other words: gentrification.
“All we need going down New Bern Avenue and in southeast Raleigh is just more buses with more frequency,” Coleman said. “Bus rapid transit is going to be brought in on New Bern Avenue to destroy the fragile business community and the housing.”
Daniel Rodriguez, a professor of sustainable community design at UNC-Chapel Hill, says the residents’ fears are “correct but misguided,” noting that gentrification is always a possibility with any economic development proposal.
“Bringing better transit to low-income groups is not only appropriate but imperative,” Rodriguez says. “Gentrification should be managed from a land-use perspective and a community perspective because it is a community issue. The cities and county should work together to make sure places don’t gentrify to expel residents from existing neighborhoods, because the beneficiaries of more transportation will ultimately be low-income residents.”
But it’s that government accountability that southeast Raleigh advocates say they’re most worried about. At the Martin Street meeting, attendees emphasized that equity, transparency, and accountability from elected officials are imperative if they are to support the referendum.
“Wake County and the City of Raleigh need to share with the voters what the transportation needs are and what future bonds are being contemplated to handle growth,” Coleman wrote in an email to the INDY. “The public needs to have a comprehensive discussion with all their elected officials about this matter before the vote in November on the transit tax.”
County officials are listening: commissioners James West, John Burns, and Sig Hutchinson attended the Martin Street meeting. “We know there are many impediments in southeast Raleigh, and we want to make sure we look at root-cause issues and have processes so that those most affected by changes will be involved,” West told the crowd.
But the city has been largely absent from this debate, and it’s unlikely to share its plans for the bond money before November.
“No timetable has been set but if the referendum is successful, council will make the appropriate decisions and as always information will be shared with the public,” spokesman John Boyette told the INDY in an email.
To southeast Raleigh advocates and residents, that’s neither transparent nor acceptable. “We must hold the city of Raleigh accountable in this transit plan,” Spencer said at the Martin Street meeting. “They have got to be nailed to the cross.”
“I do not want to support an exclusive downtown,” Rainey added. “I am very concerned about whether or not I will support this plan, and I won’t until the city of Raleigh shows me something very different when it comes to race and diversity.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “The Other Lane”