As Wake County Manager David Cooke and Triangle Transit chief David King shuttle around Wake to present their big-picture transit plan to elected bodies (they call it the "David and David tour"), the pair will be hard-pressed to find a more eager audience than the Raleigh City Council.
No surprise there. As the county's largest and most urbanized city, Raleigh has the greatest need for more bus service and, eventually, the introduction of local and regional passenger rail. Even John Odom, the council's lone declared Republican, supports putting money toward an expanded public transit system.
And so the big question for Cooke and King at Tuesday's City Council meeting wasn't about cost, affordability or projected ridership. It was more along the lines of "when can we start?"
Council members want Wake County Commissioners to commit to a referendum, ideally on the November ballot, on a half-cent sales tax for transit improvements.
Cooke said it will take until May or June to fine-tune the transit plan, at which point the County Commission will have to decide on a referendum.
That brought a smirk from Councilman Thomas Crowder, a leading light rail proponent who couldn't hide his bemusement as he listened to the latest timeframe: "What are the next steps to get your board to move off the dime here?" he asked.
Not surprisingly, Cooke didn't respond directly to that one, saying he and King must first gather feedback from the 12 municipalities around the county.
Left unmentioned is that fact that the Republican majority on Wake's board of commissioners has been cool to anything involving taxes and trains.
"We're in tough economic times, " chairman Paul Coble said in November. "We need to be careful not only how we spend money, but how we commit future revenues."
Coble again signaled his reluctance on Feb. 1 after Democratic commissioner Erv Portman spoke up for a referendum this fall.
"We don't have a plan; we have a concept," Coble said.
Seeking to keep the presentation upbeat, King noted that Peter Rogoff, the federal transit administrator, visited the Triangle last week and got a look at a proposed commuter rail line to connect Durham and Garner.
"He chose to come here following up on the State of the Union address," King said. "He was very encouraged. We have a situation here that he thinks can be competitive."
Cooke's plan is divided into two parts: What we can confidently pay for, and what we can only hope for.
- The core tier would expand local and commuter bus service and build a rush-hour 37-mile commuter rail service from Garner to Durham. It would also provide amenities such as park-and-ride lots, sidewalks, signage and bus shelters, benches and other improvements.
The proposed half-cent sales tax would cover more than half the cost, and no new state or federal money would be needed.
City Councilman Russ Stephenson called it "a very robust core plan."
- The enhanced tier would build light rail service from downtown Cary through downtown Raleigh, up to Millbrook Road in north Raleigh. The route would cover 13.9 miles.
Wake would continue planning for light rail, but it would not promise voters they could expect to get it as part of the package paid for with the proposed sales tax.
On Tuesday, King made clear light-rail won't happen anytime soon, barring an infusion of federal support.
"We would proceed down the path of competing for federal funds, but unless we're successful, we would not be able to deliver the light rail..." King said.
Transit advocates have said they would be satisfied to start with buses and commuter trains, deferring hopes for light rail until economic and political prospects improve.
"We hope they do approve this plan and move forward this November with a referendum to fund transit because it is vital to our future," WakeUP Wake County's Karen Rindge wrote in a recent letter to The N&O.
"Wake voters should be allowed to vote on this important issue (just as Durham approved last November). We must act today to plan for tomorrow's significant growth."
King offered a more sober outlook Tuesday, calling the push for transit a "long slog" and a "marathon, not a sprint."
Maybe that's not a bad thing, said Odom, referring to the need for lots of planning and consensus-building: "This is a long process, and it ought to be a long process, whether we like it or not."