Q&A with Thomas Crowder on the State of Mass Transit planning

Q&A with Thomas Crowder on the State of Mass Transit planning

Triangle communities gear up for approving mass transit plans, referendum

June, 16, 2010, by Khaner

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It’s been nearly a year since the N.C. General Assembly passed House Bill 148, the “Congestion Relief/Intermodal Transport Fund” – legislation aimed at creating a regional mass transit system for both the Triangle and the Triad. Two of the law’s main tenants call for:

    - The counties to levy a ½ cent sales tax which must be approved by voter referendum
    - The board of commissioners of each county and each area’s metropolitan planning organization for transit (MPOs), like Triangle Transit, to approve a transit plan before the referendum

While thoughts like catching a light rail train from downtown Raleigh to a Durham Bulls game runs rampant in our heads, New Raleigh caught up with Raleigh City Councilman and ardent proponent of mass transit, Thomas Crowder, to see where we’re at in this process.

According to Crowder, various groups like Triangle Transit, CAT, and the county are currently assessing ridership data, existing infrastructure, etc., while researching answers to questions like which set of rails to take approaching the Raleigh Union Station – Norfolk Southern route via Glenwood Yard on the west side of Capital Blvd. or CSX route on the east side of Capital Blvd.

Once complete, the plans will become open for a period of public commentary, likely “this summer, August through October,” commented Crowder.

“There’s going to have to be a lot of education with the public,” continued Crowder. “I think the public is going to want to know, what is this going to fund?”

After the public commentary period closes and the plans have been finalized, voters must approve a half-cent sales tax to fund the plans through a county-wide referendum. When asked when that would take place, Crowder commented “We probably won’t see a referendum until 2011. It’s all going to be a timing issue due to current economics. When is the right time to come for a referendum?”

When asked what (if any) implications federal stimulus dollars for high-speed rail have on the Triangle’s efforts, Crowder said, “I think it’s huge. That high speed rail connection is one of the major things we’re missing and is critical to becoming a major city.”

“If we’re going to have high-speed rail coming into Raleigh, we need to make sure we have light rail service coming in from Chapel Hill and Durham. Having that linkage with light rail, and then being able to get on high-speed rail here in Raleigh and arrive in Washington D.C. in 4 hours is key for attracting other businesses.”

Crowder’s expectations on when we will see either high-speed or light rail? 10-15 years.

Until then, he and others will continue promoting a regional vision, one that links Wake, Durham and Orange Counties.

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Politics, Other posts by Khaner.


TransitThomas CrowderWake CountyPlanningMass Transit


  • JeffS
    06/16 11:56 AM

    Regional thinking will only assure that light rail never gets off the ground.

    Until people start thinking about getting to important places - like Home and Work, instead of frivolous ones such as the Bulls Game, the RBC center, and the convention center the taxpayers aren’t going to pay for it. They would much rather drive their SUVs there anyway.

  • gd
    06/16 12:54 PM

    10-15 years is way too long.

  • JeffS
    06/16 01:04 PM

    Way too long, and at the same time, completely unrealistic - at least for light rail.

    Sorry Crowder, but high speed rail is NOT critical to becoming a major city. A functioning mass-transit system is, however.

    We will know Raleigh has become serious about transit when they abandon the TTA and do their own thing.

  • ct
    06/16 02:34 PM

    I’m not sure it’s feasible for Raleigh to do its own thing… not at least until the job density downtown for city residents is much higher than it is today.

    A lot of people who work downtown are state employees who don’t live in Raleigh. They commute from Wendell, Garner, etc. Similarly, by far the #1 commute destination from north Raleigh OTB is Research Triangle Park, not downtown.

    In the interim, Raleigh would get much more bang for the buck by increasing investment in the CAT bus system. Heck, in most places one has to stand in the rain to catch a CAT bus. As long as that’s the case, it’s difficult or impossible to convince taxpayers that Raleigh is sincere abut mass transit.

    I believe Crowder’s timeline is correct for the SEHSR project (Charlotte-Raleigh-Washington).

  • bc
    06/16 03:07 PM

    “Way too long?” If they were to build light rail right now in raleigh it would run barren for the most part.

    Raleigh and Durham are just “way too accessible” at the moment to warrant any kind of mass transit. There is limited traffic, plenty of cheap/free parking and as JeffS stated above, people would rather drive their suvs anyway.
    Until the cities make so inconvenient for us that we “demand” light rail instead of thinking “riding a tram would be sooo cool”, there is not an immediate need for it.  I understand looking toward the future is a necessity, but to say 10 years out is “way too long” is inaccurate.
    The only place I see that would actually benefit from rail today would be from cary to rtp.  This would relieve some of the congestion on 40, open the road up for raleigh commuters, and able you to catch the Bull’s game on time in your suv.

  • City-Zen
    06/16 05:42 PM

    They need to connect North Raleigh via Glenwood to allow more development around future Midtown (North Hills) and Uptown (Crabtree) These areas are gonna be more dense and walkable than Capital B. will ever be. Serious flaws with these plans.

  • J-Wien
    06/16 06:11 PM

    Light rail runs at a top speed of 30mph and would not be the commuting choice between Raleigh and Durham, rather it would be diesel powered.  Light rail would be a viable transportation option to connect downtown Raleigh with Cameron Village, North Hills, with the geographic extent being Brier Creek and the airport (even that is a stretch).  If you are trying to connect work and home, light rail is the better option.  If you want rail between Raleigh and Durham commuter rail is the best. 

    I advocate a light rail option in Raleigh as the approach with the best chance of ridership success.  Commuter rail should come second.

  • Lew
    06/16 10:01 PM

    It would seem to me that commuter rail linking our towns and employment centers and giving daily commuters an alternative to driving should come first and be up and running by the time SEHSR gets here.
    I don’t think we have quite the density yet to support light rail in Raleigh. In the meantime, expanding and improving our bus system is a must.

  • JeffS
    06/16 10:19 PM

    So basically everyone is looking for a solution to further encourage sprawl?

    Everyone seems to miss the point, perhaps intentionally, that light rail CREATES density. You don’t wait for the density and then try to shoehorn a rail line down the middle of it.

    You don’t have to want to live in a condo on the rail line to benefit from it. These are people that aren’t out there driving 540 with you every afternoon. It’s that many more years that you will be able to drive your car to work before the roads become completely unusable - and when you do choose to go in the vicinity of the rail there will be a lot of stuff to do and a way to get around.

  • City-Zen
    06/16 10:33 PM

    I agree with Jeff S. 540 traffic is bearable now, but give it 10 years and North Raleigh will be a mess of backups.

  • ct
    06/16 10:54 PM

    “You don’t wait for the density and then try to shoehorn a rail line down the middle of it.” But that’s exactly how the VTA system in San Jose/Santa Clara was built. Reality is, there must be an initial critical mass of ridership, or else there’s insufficient political support to spend the money on construction.

    I agree that mass transit will increase density eventually, but the experience in Atlanta indicates that it takes far longer for that to happen (15-20 years) than many advocates of mass transit will admit.

  • Vincent Vegemite
    06/17 11:01 AM

    Jeff, you beat me to it. Metro/light rail/whatever tends to drive density. Also, good point about rail going to functionaly versus frivolous spots. You leave me with nothing to say other than “ditto.” Ba%tard!

    06/17 05:30 PM

    sweet!  light rail!  fantastic!  then we’d be a “real” city.  A real city with a train that no one is gonna ride (BC, nice post).  But hey - we’d be cool, right?  I just hope it’ll take me from my ITB condo to the Chapel Hill restaurant district.  And I really hope it avoids that awful “south” ITB area.

    What else would be cool for this town to needlessly add?  I’m thinking….an Arc de Triomphe over Glenwood Avenue, a MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL STADIUM downtown (hey, you don’t wait for the majors to come here - you build it, and that ATTRACTS major league baseball!) and maybe a Space Needle.  Yeah!

    A train would be a homeless hangout, a liberal feel-good solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, and yet another red-tape government waste center full of city employees that just cost the working folks money.

    06/17 05:44 PM

    You people can’t go toe to toe with the INSTIGATOR.  He’s not afraid to voice unpopular opinions because he isn’t here to make friends.  He’s here to kick ass and chew bubble gum.  And, you guessed it… he’s all out of bubblegum.  He’s the INSTIGATOR.

  • Blzebub
    06/17 05:59 PM

    The INSTIGATOR strikes again!  Taking it to the streets for the god-fearing, blue-collared, republican super rangers!  Yee-haw!

  • DPK
    06/18 01:02 AM

    INSTIGATOR and INSTANT TATERS are one in the same and are just trolling this sites comments as of late.  Just ignore their comments ladies and gents.  They’re only designed to get a rise out of you.  Don’t play into the hands of the troll.

    06/18 10:33 AM

    We ain’t the same person, sheriff.  I was making fun of him.

  • Exascerbator
    06/18 11:04 AM

    People said no one would ride the Charlotte trains but now they complain that they can’t build the rest of the line fast enough.  Some people lack that vision thing and they also lack a memory of how fast Raleigh has grown in the last 15 years.

  • ct
    06/18 11:20 AM

    Apples and oranges!! Charlotte has probably 5 times more private-sector employment in their downtown core than Raleigh does. Private-sector employment matters because those folks are paid enough money (on average) to be able to live within the Charlotte city limits. Public-sector employees often cannot. Charlotte also has a despicably bad road system compared to Raleigh.

  • Exascerbator
    06/18 12:21 PM

    I’ll agree with you on one point CT because there really isn’t much difference between an apple and an orange. The Charlotte rail spurred over $1 billion dollars in private development along the rail corridor within 2-years of the start of construction.  And Charlotte’s train and mass transit upgrade was largely designed for those who can’t afford to live in the downtown areas - it provides bus connectivity to the trains.  Charlotte had to market the sales tax increase for tranist as both a social responsibility to the poor working class, and as a luxury to the urban yuppies, which it is.  You are correct that the banks and private industry badly wanted the trains.  They are, and will be, an attractive asset in luring more private business to downtowns.  Your example of San Jose is exactly the wrong way to proceed.  The worst ridership of any system in the nation:  http://www.ti.org/vaupdate32.html

  • Taylor
    06/18 12:22 PM

    The heart of the mass transit debate in small cities is not so much about sprawl, sustainability, land-use, economics, etc.  At its core, this debate centers on social attitudes and preferences. 

    Social attitudes are not really a factor in major cities, because the need for mass transit is simply unquestionable.  There is such a critical mass of density and people that the city would cease to function without it. 

    In smaller cities though, the push for mass transit is driven by a different force.  For instance, in Portland it is a ubiquitous goal to create a community based on sustainable land-use.  It is supported publicly and promoted privately.  This development pattern is engrained in the culture of that city and is a product of the social attitudes of its inhabitants. 

    The Triangle falls into the small city category as well.  But consider the development pattern that is engrained in our culture.  Just as Portland is defined by its smart land-use, the Triangle is defined by its sprawl.  I would argue this is no accident.  Most residents in this region prefer living in non-dense, suburban-style neighborhoods.  We as a people prefer the car to the bike, gated communities and strip malls to mixed-use neighborhoods, etc.  In short, density is antithetical to the preferred way of life for most of our inhabitants. 

    Despite the disdain progressive-thinking people here have towards this development pattern, they do their cause no good by turning a blind eye to this fundamental truth about our culture. 

    If the pace of growth and development in our urban cores is to outpace that of our suburbs, it’s going to take a lot more than improved transit options.  In my judgment, it requires a change in social attitudes.  If our preferences do not change, we will never create the critical mass of density needed to make such an endeavor financially viable, and most of all – practical.

  • ct
    06/18 12:31 PM

    My point is, Charlotte already had a critical mass of private-sector employees in the city core. They provided the baseline ridership, and more importantly they provided the political base (along with support from the very influential banks) to get the system built in the first place. Without that critical mass, the system wouldn’t have been built and the development wouldn’t have materialized.

    I’ve heard the $1 billion dollar figure before, and I think it’s an urban legend. I have never been able to find an exact quantification of how it was calculated, nor will we ever know how much of that development would have happened anyway. It was a bubble economy for both commercial and residential real estate, and we won’t see another bubble like that for a long time.

    Like it or not, we’re back to the hard fact that Raleigh does not have the critical mass that Charlotte did, nor does Raleigh have an influential private-sector employer base who is pushing for mass transit. For example, have you heard a single word from Progress Energy about it? or RBC Bank? Without critical mass, I expect that the next sales tax proposal floated by the city for mass transit will flame out at the polls.

    As for San Jose, I think it does show the inherent stupidity of inserting mass transit into an area that was developed with sprawl—just like Raleigh was. Aside from Adobe, the City of SJ has been basically unsuccessful in convincing any of the high-tech companies to move out of the office parks (like Cisco-ville) into downtown. Raleigh will have the same problem, with respect to RTP.

  • ct
    06/18 12:38 PM

    I agree with Taylor’s perspective. Fundamentally we are talking about social engineering here, or perhaps social re-engineering. And the underlying question is whether the politicians who espouse social re-engineering can find long-term support among voters to migrate Raleigh towards the high-density vision. Of course there is some support for it… but the irony of Raleigh’s aggressive annexation is that OTB headcount is now a high proportion of the overall headcount, and most folks OTB don’t care about a high-density approach (or they wouldn’t have moved here in the first place).

    By the way, the Thoreau website shows St Louis in second place for PM/TM. The St Louis MetroLink system was shoe-horned into being long after the city was built out.

  • Exascerbator
    06/18 12:48 PM

    Let’s use the DC area for comparison.  Very sprawl oriented and the Metro lines created edge cities like Tyson’s Corner as business development along the Metro line.  To Taylor’s point: in Raleigh, the development could happen along the line but not necessarily downtown.  We could have a Tyson’s Corner explode near the RBC Center, or Brier Creek (which is designated in city planning to be a satellite urban area).  Like the DC area, people in North Raleigh and Cary like the idea of suburban living until traffic becomes terrible, until you have to widen HWY 64 to 8 lanes, until it takes 20 minutes to turn left out of your subdivision, until you spend 15% of your money and life on transportation and the related costs.  Then people move from DC to Raleigh and start that process all over again.

  • ct
    06/18 01:00 PM

    I used to have an office in Tysons Corner. Most of Tysons commercial space was built 1980-1995. At the time, the nearest Metro station was Dunn Loring, three miles away—if you define Tysons as the intersection of VA 123 and VA 7. Only now is WMATA extending heavy rail into Tysons with the Silver Line.  Since 1995, most of the development has been farther out on the Dulles Toll Road… and the suburban sprawl has pushed out west of Leesville.

    Exascerbator is correct about the cycle of sprawl and congestion. But all the cheap land in east Wake (not to mention Glanville, Johnston, Franklin, etc) will carry this area for another 50 years. That’s how long it took metro Atlanta to develop congestion everywhere.

  • Exascerbator
    06/18 02:21 PM

    CT, I confused Tyson’s Corner with Alexandria, or Arlington, one of whose Metro stops generated a remarkable amount of development, shifting from being strip mall development to a city.  This is some interesting data and check out the reader comment:  http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/kbenfield/dc_area_market_speaks_loud_and.html

    I don’t see Raleigh’s planners as trying to re-engineer society; they are planning based on projections of growth and changes in demographics.  The planners aren’t trying to create fewer non-family households but they need to plan for the fact that they will be the majority.  It would be social engineering to NOT plan for the changes.  Raleigh has had a larger population gain since 2000, than any other American city.

  • ct
    06/18 02:46 PM

    Exascerbator, you’re correct about Arlington. Undoubtedly the Metro was a factor there. It also helped that Arlington, unlike D.C., didn’t cap the size of a high-rise office building, taxes are much lower in Virginia than in D.C., etc.

    Not sure about Raleigh versus Las Vegas in the population gain, but either way there has been a lot of growth… and the growth will continue.

    Some folks—particularly tax-payers OTB—do indeed look at it as social engineering. They carry those perceptions, right or wrong, to the voting booth. Another way to look at it is that ITB business interests know Raleigh cannot annex much further, therefore the City must grow upward if it is to continue to grow in population. Thus we see a campaign for mass transit, instead of defaulting all the growth to Cary, Wake Forest, Wendell, Holly Springs, Garner, etc.

    Many persons ITB are promoting higher density because they believe it’s the right thing to do. I’m sure Mayor Meeker and Mitch Silver believe it. But there are other advocates of higher density for whom it’s merely a strategy for personal enrichment.

  • Jonathan Parker
    06/19 01:20 AM

    If you are interested in learning more about the mass transit plans in the region, including the potential for bus and rail transit options, please come to one of these upcoming public workshops—find out more at:


    If you can’t make one of the meetings, the material presented will be online in mid July.

  • Joshua
    06/19 11:27 PM

    Taylor, very well put. It will absolutely require a shift in our social tendencies. I see it happening but it’s taking a while to turn the ship.

  • bc
    06/21 03:39 PM

    Screw it.
    If we build it. They will come?


  • Jim
    06/22 10:39 AM

    @bc Wow that’s a really funny situation in china, but this is really different because Raleigh already has economic activity and people already live here.

  • bc
    06/22 12:30 PM

    I understand. It is just an extreme situation of over development and that growth for growth’s sake can go wrong. We complain because Hue sits empty..just saying.

  • Mark
    09/07 08:26 PM

    If all of the bickering continues of having mass tranist the traffice along 440-I40 will be a nightmare come true if it isn’t already. Time for action is now,not 10-20 years from now. People will have to pull up their boot straps and commute by light rail or bus.Simply start small and build from there. Raleigh is just asking for it when it comes to commuting to and from work. CAT Buses right now Suck. It takes me more time to get to and from work every day. Scheduling is a mess, and the bus drivers,well, I wont get into that,not to mention the lack of bus shelters and maps throughout the city.It just makes common sense that the cost of bus fare is five times less than the upkeep of your car. Come on do the math.Raleigh has a @#$% load of work to do to revamp the CAT buses and Triangle Transit.

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