Monday, November 18, 2013

Triangle's transit tussle - and its 'expert' trio

And speaking of public transit, which I often find myself doing, Rob Perks of the Natural Resources Defense Council last Friday posted a good summation of the situation in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill region, where two of the three counties have voted for a sales tax to start building a system of rail and bus lines throughout the region. But Wake County continues to balk.

And read on to learn about my research into a panel of three ostensibly unbiased "experts" that may have been a stacked deck.

First, here's a link to Perks' blog, "The Tussle over Transit in the Triangle." It's a good summation of the situation. Be aware that given Perks' job and beliefs, it's commentary, as opposed to a news article.

The situation: Wake County commissioners, dominated by Republicans, have stalled and stalled. Then they hired a three-person panel of "experts" to look at the local data and provide advice. One of the experts is Sam R. Staley, well known in planning circles as an anti-Smart Growth voice. He's a research fellow at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian public policy think tank. Among those on Reason's board of directors is David Koch, the billionaire oil industry mogul and conservative activist whose money in part has helped bankroll the Tea Party, among other political endeavors. But I digress.

Another of the three experts is Steve Polzin, director of the mobility research program at the Center for Urban ...
Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. A Tampa Bay Times investigation in 2009 found that the center has frequently been critical of passenger rail travel, while promoting alternatives (highways and bus rapid transit) that it has been paid millions to study.  Read it here: One of rail's biggest critics gets millions to study and promote alternatives

The article notes the CUTR's history of opposition to rail transit projects. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio (who didn't run for a third term in 2011) was critical of CUTR. She told the Times that CUTR's objections to rail have held the area back and predicted they'd be recycled, again, to weaken public support of a light rail proposal headed for a 2010 vote. [That 2010 vote for a 1-cent sales tax for transit in Hillsborough County lost 58 percent to 42 percent.]

"I've been very disappointed in the role CUTR has chosen to play," Iorio said. "I do believe academic think tanks can play a very important role in shaping public policy. But CUTR is such a waste of a resource. It's one of the reasons why we haven't moved forward with rail. It's really been a shame."

The third expert is Clarence W. “Cal” Marsella, former general manager of the Regional Transportation District and the public face of its multibillion-dollar and nationally praised FasTracks rail project.

Here's an account of the panelists' recommendations from the Raleigh Public Record.

Of course, transit and transportation scholars can legitimately disagree about the wisdom of one public policy course over another, and they can provide research data to support a wide spectrum of conclusions. That's legitimate.  But for the Wake commissioners to name two prominent rail transit critics to a three-person advisory panel might be raising some eyebrows in the Triangle. 

Here are some links to Raleigh News & Observer articles on the three-member panel:

New urban workers want rail transit
Wake transit plan – which never got first look from commissioners – needs ‘second look,’ Triangle Transit chair says.

 


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