RALEIGH, N.C. – Like many fast-growing parts of the country, North Carolina's Triangle region is trying to avoid being strangled by its own success: Traffic is thickening, drivers are getting stuck in it and there's no simple solution in sight.
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On average, 78 new residents arrive each day. The population of the three counties that include Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill is forecast to grow by more than 40 percent, to 2 million, over the next two decades.
For most people, there's no practical alternative to driving. Bus service is often slow and unreliable.
As a remedy, local officials have discussed building a light rail system that would connect the region's three downtowns, three research universities, two major medical centers and Research Triangle Park, where about 45,000 people commute to work by car. The idea is to get people out of their vehicles and channel development to a transportation corridor to help contain sprawl.
Steve Errico is in the thick of the commuting hordes. On the three days a week he gets to work by 6 a.m., he drives the 15 miles from his home in Raleigh to his office at a pharmaceutical company in just under 20 minutes. The other two workdays, when he leaves nearly two hours later, traffic congestion makes the trip twice as long.
Extra highway lanes have relieved some traffic choke points, only to create others, Errico said.
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"We're just moving the bottleneck around," he said. "I don't know that we're solving anything."
Remaining dependent on cars, local officials say, ultimately will hurt economic growth and erode the region's quality of life. Research Triangle Park, for example, was a recent finalist for Mercedes-Benz's U.S. headquarters but lost out to a Atlanta suburb with easy access to the city's rail system.
"It's a rite of passage," Roger Perry, a Chapel Hill real estate developer, said about the need to build mass transit in fast-growing regions. "You kind of say to the world, 'OK, stand aside, we're coming through. We're going to do the things that are necessary to be competitive.'"
Yet even in regions with growing traffic congestion, consensus on whether the benefits of a light rail system justify the cost and agreement about where to find the money are hard to come by.
The federal government has become an unreliable partner because Congress can't decide how to pay for transportation projects. The Republican-controlled North Carolina Legislature is unsympathetic, even hostile, to transit projects that would mainly benefit urban areas mostly represented by Democrats.
The tale is familiar in much of the Sunbelt, which continues to lead the nation in population growth. Building rail systems and beefing up bus service often mean raising taxes and choosing routes where some constituents win and others lose. Communities often wait to act until congestion becomes intolerable.
At a rally of light rail supporters in Durham in February, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx urged Triangle-area officials to "think big" and build based on future transportation demands, not today's congestion.
"When we think of rail transit, it's not just New York City or Chicago or Dallas," said Foxx, a former mayor of North Carolina's largest city, Charlotte. "In the 21st century, states like North Carolina are going to become population centers ... This could be the example our country has been looking for, for how you build before the load overwhelms you."
Some cities are making efforts to build or expand transit systems, with varying results.
Rail systems in Denver, Salt Lake City and Portland, Oregon, earn high marks. New Mexico seemed to be looking ahead when it opened a 97-mile commuter rail line between Albuquerque and Santa Fe in 2006, but the gulf between the system's revenue and expenses has been widening, and there have been calls to abandon the line.
Others are playing catch up. Los Angeles is spending $14 billion on new rail lines and highway lanes, one of the largest public-works projects in the country. Houston is radically redesigning its bus system to provide frequent service throughout the day. Atlanta is in the early stages of work on a "beltline" to encircle the city using old railroad right of way to connect 45 neighborhoods through a series of parks, biking and walking trails, as well as a light rail line.
In North Carolina, two of the three Triangle counties — Durham and Orange, which includes Chapel Hill — are working on plans to build a $1.5 billion, 17-mile light rail system. Construction is tentatively targeted to begin around 2020, even though local officials are still $225 million short because of unanticipated changes in the way the state allocates transportation aid.
Durham and Orange county voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase to help fund the project. Republican commissioners in Wake County, where Raleigh is located, refused to permit a ballot initiative on a tax increase.
A new Democratic-controlled board is considering less costly options, including diesel trains that would operate on tracks added to the existing freight rail right of way and more frequent bus service.
Said Raleigh City Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin: It's "a compromise between what people would want and what we can afford."
The future of Research Triangle Park, where about 100 technology companies are housed in low-rise buildings surrounded by 7,000 acres of lush lawns, thick woods and parking lots, may hinge on what local officials decide.
When it opened in 1959, the park was on the cutting edge of commercial development and has been a bright spot in North Carolina's economy as tobacco, textiles and furniture have faded. But business leaders tell park officials that today's young workers don't want jobs on a sprawling campus where they have to get in their cars to reach a restaurant, bar or gym.
Plans are underway to turn 800 acres inside the park into a 24/7 destination with apartments, a hotel, restaurants, shops, outdoor amphitheaters and other amenities, including shuttle buses to the office. But key to the plan is a rail transit stop at the park.
"We can do some of it without transit," said Bob Geolas, the park's chief executive, "but we cannot ultimately accomplish the larger economic goals and aspirations without transit."
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